Girls eat only half their five-a-day of fruit and vegetables, research finds

7/24/2011 23:04:02 PM

Doctors express concern over high levels of saturated fat and too little fruit, vegetables and iron in many teenagers' diets

Doctors have voiced fears about teenagers' health after new government research showed that many children's diets contain too much saturated fat and too little fruit, vegetables and iron.

Girls' eating habits emerged as a particular concern: those aged 11 to 18 consume on average only 2.7 of the recommended five portions a day of fruit and vegetables, with just 5% eating what official guidelines say are needed for good health. Boys the same age eat too little as well, with an average of 3.1 portions a day, and just 13% having the full five a day.

Teenage girls are meant to consume 8mg a day of iron, but 44% do not do so, according to findings from the annual National Diet and Nutrition Surveys for 2008/09 and 2009/10. That suggests that they are eating too little bread, cereals, meat, meat products, fish, eggs and nuts.

The results prompted the Department of Health to warn that children's "poor eating habits risk storing up a number of potential problems for later life, such as heart disease and some cancers".

The survey also showed that children of all age groups continue to consume more than the recommended amount of saturated fats Adults typically get 12.8% of their food energy from these, which should not exceed 11%. It is the same with sugar: intake of non-milk extrinsic sugars – sugars that have been added to food or released during processing – provides more than the recommended 11% of food energy in 19- to 64-year-olds and children aged four and over.

"These new figures show that a significant number of children are overweight, and equally worryingly, the majority of our teenagers don't eat as healthily as they should," said Professor Terence Stephenson, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. "It's naive to think we can defuse the 'ticking time-bomb' of long-term effects on health with simply a nudge here and a nudge there. Voluntary agreements with industry are fine as far as they go but what will make a difference is an evidence-based, and possibly regulatory, approach to protecting and promoting our children's health."

Kawther Hashem, co-ordinator of the Children's Food Campaign, said: "We are highly concerned that teenagers' diets are becoming increasingly unhealthy, boosting their risk of heart disease, cancer and other illnesses as adults. The government has failed to acknowledge the role the junk food industry plays in undermining young people's health. As long as children and teenagers are bombarded by junk food marketing, they will be encouraged to make unhealthy dietary choices."

Health minister Paul Burstow admitted that the population's food habits were a concern. "Over the last ten years we have not seen the improvements we should have," he said. He insisted the coalition's controversial public health policies, especially its responsibility deal involving food and alcohol producers as well as some health charities, would help tackle obesity.

But Hashem said it was "ridiculous for government to argue that companies like Mars, McDonald's, PepsiCo and Pizza Hut should write the government's health policies. They have no interest in young people eating more fruit and vegetables. They make their profits peddling sweets, fizzy drinks and processed foods."

More encouragingly, the Department of Health, which co-funded the studies, said: "Younger children's eating habits are improving, with parents taking positive steps to give their kids a healthier diet with fewer sweets, fizzy drinks, chocolate, and also switching them to high-fibre cereals. Comparing this survey with the previous survey in 1997, younger children (age 4-10) appear to be switching to high-fibre breakfast cereals from non-high-fibre cereals, eating more fruit and vegetables, and less confectionery and soft drinks," said a spokesman.

Growing numbers of adults are now using lower-fat milk than before, while the general intake of transfats, which have been linked to heart disease, is well below the recommended maximum.

Professor Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer, said it was important for teenagers to have a balanced diet in order to help ward off illnesses such as cancer and heart disease as adults.

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