Heat or eat? Prepayment users consume less fruit and vegetables, study finds

Published by  News archive

On 11th Nov 2022

Letters spelling heat, with a knife and fork.
Getty images

People using prepayment energy meters consume less fruit and vegetables compared to those using alternative payment methods, according to new research.

The study, by academics at the Universities of East Anglia (UEA) and Reading in the UK, and the University of Macedonia in Greece, explores the role of prepayment meters in the ‘heat-or-eat’ dilemma, a trade-off typically between paying for food or heating.

Households with prepaid meters usually pay more for their energy and the researchers found a strong link between this and lower consumption of fruit and vegetables – on average almost three fewer portions a week compared to those using alternative payment methods, such as direct debit.

The difference in consumption is roughly split between one fewer fruit and two fewer vegetables. The results, published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, suggest targeted support for prepayment users may have beneficial effects on people’s fruit and vegetable consumption patterns, and that this could be more effective in protecting women’s health in particular.

Drawing on a sample of more than 24,800 people living in Great Britain, the analysis further reveals that prepayment meter users are not only less likely to meet the World Health Organisation's recommended ‘5-a-day’, but also more likely to use food banks, which often do not provide fruit and vegetables because of the cost and perishable nature of the goods, as well as demand, with households relying on cold boxes and kettle boxes that either do not need cooking or only need hot water from a kettle. 

The researchers say the heat-or-eat dilemma has resurfaced during the ongoing energy price crisis and warn it has the potential to worsen diet quality among the UK population if expenditure on healthy food is traded-off for energy consumption.

The study’s lead author Dr Andrew Burlinson, Lecturer in Energy Economics at UEA’s Norwich Business School, explained that while the link between prepayment meters and consumption of fruit and vegetables might seem obvious, there has been little research into it with regards to the different payment methods.

“Most importantly, our findings show that prepayment meters play a role in lower levels of fruit and vegetable consumption among potentially more vulnerable households,” said Dr Burlinson. 

“Short-term support is necessary but not sufficient to protect households from future energy price shocks. The UK government should develop strategies that could make a lasting difference to households.

“For example, a new social tariff could eliminate the prepaid meter price premium, bringing prices in-line with direct debit customers – paid for in the short-term by a windfall tax on oil and gas companies and general taxation in the longer-term.”

According to the National Food Strategy only a quarter of the UK population meets the recommended consumption of fruit and vegetables - an important source of dietary fibre, minerals, and vitamins - despite the lower associated risk of morbidity and mortality.

To help address this, the study makes four key policy recommendations, including allocating financial support to prepayment meter users via channels likely to increase fruit and vegetable consumption. For example, public health initiatives, such as the Healthy Start Scheme or Best Start Foods, may be expanded to include vulnerable prepayment meter users. 

Targeted support measures are necessary as they may increase healthy food choices, in particular fruit and vegetables, for those more vulnerable; this may be viewed as a preventable measure from a public health perspective as healthier food has the potential to reduce cardiovascular disease, cancer, and premature mortality risks.

“Over the medium and long term, governments should scale up the installation of energy efficiency and low-carbon technologies in the residential sector, including insulation and solar panels,” said Dr Apostolos Davillas, co-author, from the University of Macedonia.

Co-author of the study, Dr Cherry Law at the University of Reading added: “Policy instruments aimed at reducing energy demand, whilst ensuring energy services are affordable, may not only help vulnerable households, including prepayment meter users, achieve adequate levels of energy.

“They could also increase their resilience to future energy price volatility, reduce carbon emissions, and have the potential to improve the quality of diets and population health as a result.”

Commenting in light of the research, national fuel poverty charity National Energy Action (NEA) warned that not addressing the issues as soon as possible will result in “continued and unnecessary hardship”.

Peter Smith, Director of Policy and Advocacy at NEA, said: “With energy bills already at record highs, prepayment meter customers face the starkest choices over the coming months. Hundreds of thousands of people are likely to ration their use or stop topping up simply because they cannot afford to.

“Most worryingly, this new research shows for the first time that prepayment users are increasingly unable to feed the meter at the same time as feeding themselves or their families. We know children face some of the most severe consequences, too many will be going hungry and cold as the winter months approach. 

“The UK government must urgently prioritise and deepen support for low income and vulnerable households this winter and beyond. We particularly need to reduce the number of legacy prepayment meters which prohibit support reaching people more easily and standing charges which grow daily, irrespective of whether any energy is being used.

“Ultimately, we need to put an end to the shocking energy waste in our leaky homes which has made us much more exposed to this energy crisis.” 

‘Pay (for it) as you go: Prepaid energy meters and the heat-or-eat dilemma’, Andrew Burlinson, Apostolos Davillas and Cherry Law, is published in Social Science & Medicine.

Latest News

Prof David Maguire
27 Mar 2023

University of East Anglia appoints new Vice-Chancellor

UEA is very pleased to announce that Professor David Maguire has been appointed as the University’s new Vice-Chancellor, joining in May 2023.

Read more >
A group of people in a meeting.
27 Mar 2023

INCREASE VS project helps thousands of people into employment and entrepreneurship

New research led by the University of East Anglia (UEA) shows that large infrastructure projects must also offer sustainable, local investment in deprived...

Read more >
A disabled child watches a video on a phone with an adult.
24 Mar 2023

More support needed for children with disabilities using the Internet

Children with disabilities need better support to manage their online lives and potential online risks, finds UEA researcher.

Read more >
A medical professional administering a Covid-19 vaccine.
23 Mar 2023

Vaccination halves risk of long Covid, largest study to date shows

Read more >
Are you searching for something?
A medical professional administering a Covid-19 vaccine.
23 Mar 2023

Vaccination halves risk of long Covid, largest study to date shows

Read more >
Sea defences on the coast of Ghana.
23 Mar 2023

Measuring impacts of climate change on heritage to be explored at conference

A major conference on coastal heritage loss due to climate change is taking place at the University of East Anglia next week.

Read more >
An injured man on the beach.
23 Mar 2023

Scientists warn of rise in potentially fatal bacterial infection due to global warming

Continued warming of the climate would see a rise in the number and spread of potentially fatal infections caused by bacteria found along parts of the coast of...

Read more >
A hand holding up a lightbulb with a graduation cap on, green background
22 Mar 2023

Success for UEA in QS World University Rankings

UEA has ranked in the top tier of universities worldwide in a number of areas in the QS World University Rankings By Subject 2023, released Wednesday 22 March,...

Read more >
Spring Street Market L-R: floral prints, crafter birds, The Street with visitors, fruit and vegetables, jewellery stall
17 Mar 2023

Student and graduate businesses given chance to shine on campus at Spring Street Market

Held on Wednesday 15 March, the inaugural Spring Street Market was a bustling success for the University of East Anglia (UEA), with a high turnout of both stall...

Read more >
A trans man in a business meeting.
17 Mar 2023

Study highlights challenges facing transgender and non-binary workers

New research led by the University of East Anglia highlights some of the challenges that transgender and non-binary staff can face at work.

Read more >
A man holds a credit card as he types on a laptop.
28 Mar 2023

How repeated questions could put you at risk of cyber crime

People reveal more personal information when you ask them the same questions a second time – according to new research from the University of East Anglia.

Read more >