THE economic squeeze is making it more expensive for people to eat healthily, with serious long-term implications for people's health.
The price of healthy food is rising much faster than the price of unhealthy products, affecting the diets of people struggling on lower incomes.
Major nutritional surveys show consumers are eating less fruit and vegetables than they were a decade ago and health campaigners have urged the Government to ensure Budget cutbacks don't make it even harder for low-income families to afford nutritious food.
Analysis of Central Statistics Office (CSO) data reveals the cost of high-fat foods is falling, whereas healthier foods have seen price hikes.
For example, pizza and ice cream cost 5pc less than they did a year ago, but vegetables and beef prices have shot up by 7pc and potatoes are up 19pc.
Meanwhile, the price of ready meals has plummeted by almost 10pc in three years, whereas the price of fresh fruit rose 4pc in that time.
Data from two major nationwide food consumption surveys in 2001 and 2011 also reveal a major decline in the number of people eating fruit and vegetables, the key foods associated with better health.
Far fewer of us are eating green vegetables, carrots, salad, peas, beans, fruit juices, bananas, citrus fruit, tinned fruit and other fruits such as apples and pears.
The decline has been quite dramatic – for example, 63pc of adults surveyed had eaten green vegetables in the last few days in 2001 but this plummeted to 42pc in 2011, the National Adult Nutrition Survey shows.
The latest figures show we're now eating just 192g of fruit and veg per day – less than half what the World Health Organisation recommends.
However, our average daily consumption of pizzas, burgers, sweets and savoury snacks all rose, a comparison with the 2001 North/South Food Consumption Survey reveals.
Daily consumption totals show we're eating 29pc more pizza and burgers than we did a decade ago.
The Healthy Food for All (HFA) alliance said its research showed it could be 10 times cheaper to get your calories from unhealthy processed food than healthy fresh produce, lean meat and fish.
"It comes down to price and what's on special offer as it'll usually be the pizzas that are two for €1, not the apples," said spokesperson Sinead Keenan.
"People are looking for foods they can afford that will fill them, but very often that means empty calories that don't meet their nutritional needs," she said.
Ireland already had the highest prices in the EU for fruit, vegetables and potatoes and rising costs made it even harder for low-income families to eat healthily as they already spent a disproportionate share of their weekly income on food, HFA said in its pre-Budget submission.
Dr Daniel McCartney of Dublin Institute of Technology said his study of the diets of women from disadvantaged backgrounds in Dublin showed serious dietary deficits.
"This is a very real problem as the figures show premature death from heart disease and cancer is twice as high among lower socio-economic groups and diet is a very big part of that," he said.
Dr McCartney who is a lecturer in human nutrition said that CSO figures showed the poverty gap had widened considerably in the last few years, and it was highly likely that diets had also worsened as a result.
A recent report for the Department of Social Protection showed that around 450,000 people in Ireland experienced food poverty in 2010.