British Nutrition Foundation: “Disappointing” nutrition habits of UK kids calls for stronger food education 

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11 Jun 2018 --- New research from the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) reveals that 60 percent of 11 to 16 year-olds buy foods such as fries or fried chicken at least once a week, while almost a third cited that they drink at least one energy drink a week. The stats draw attention to the need for stronger nutritional education among children, as they increasingly seek information from sources such as social media and the internet.

The research is particularly important because of the potential long-term nutritional effects of unhealthy habits, “Having these foods and drinks only once is unlikely to have a lasting impact on health. However, what is more likely is that having such foods and drinks is part of an unhealthy eating pattern that, if continued over the long-term, affects our eating habits and can really impact on health. This is especially the case for young people whose bodies are still growing and developing,” Frances Meek, Senior Education Officer at BNF tells NutritionInsight.

The research, conducted as part of BNF Healthy Eating Week, surveyed almost 5,000 primary and secondary school students aged seven to 16 years. Some further results included that 39 percent of secondary (aged 11 to 16) and 48 percent of primary (aged 7 to 11) school students report eating three or more snacks a day. 

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“One in ten primary-aged pupils thinks
 that bananas are grown in the UK.”

Moreover, when asked about the three snacks that they eat most, encouragingly, fruit was the most popular snack with over half of both primary and secondary school students surveyed saying it was one of the snacks that they ate most. However, this was closely followed by less healthy options, with almost half of children aged seven to 11 years saying they snack on crisps (46 percent) and chocolate (46 percent). While both primary and secondary school students reported getting most of their snacks at home, about one-fifth of primary and a third of secondary students stated that they also get snacks from the shops.

The survey also reveals that children aged 11 to 16 years are motivated by different factors to eat healthily, with nearly a third saying that this is so that they will have more energy (31 percent) and sleep better (30 percent) and almost half wanting to feel healthy. Considering the older age group, nearly half of the students said being good at a sport motivated them to eat healthier, while almost a third cited the main reason for not being active was feeling too tired after school.

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Results from question 7 among secondary
school students.

There are also barriers to eating well with 36 percent reporting that they don’t like healthy foods, 20 percent saying that healthy foods are boring and 12 percent not sure what the healthiest foods are. Most respondents (67 percent) in this age group say they would talk to their parents if they were worried about their health or weight. If they didn’t want to talk to someone face-to-face, 41 percent would go to the National Health Service (NHS) website or other health websites (31 percent), while 16 percent would look to social media.

Although the researchers were not shocked by the results, the spokesperson tells NutritionInsight, that they were “disappointed.”

Implications for health and looking to the future
The changing social dimensions of this generation of children impacts on nutrition: “Young people are influenced by a much wider range of factors than previous generations and they seek out information in different ways and from a number of sources including friends, social media and websites. Whereas in the past, parents and teachers may have been a young person’s main source of information this is not always the case now. Teachers, families and organizations such as the British Nutrition Foundation, all have an important role to play in ensuring that young people really understand where their food comes from and how to apply food and nutrition messages to develop healthier choices that will last a lifetime,” says Meek.

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Hands-on food preparation at school
can help set children up for the future.

Moreover, school environments – where children spend most of their time – can also do more: “Young people spend a lot of their time in school so the school environment should encourage healthier choices and teachers should be confident in their ability to support young people. Continuing professional development (CPD) focusing on food is important for teachers and other school staff in order for them to gain an understanding of this area that they can then pass on to their students.”

“Many food teachers may get little training in nutrition. Addressing this is key to ensuring the quality of food education in schools. For many years, BNF has been involved with food and nutrition teacher CPD and is an advocate of regular, practical hands-on food preparation and cooking in nursery, primary and secondary schools. Learning how to apply good nutrition messages, cook healthier food choices and understand where your food comes from is essential from an early age,” he adds.

Armed with a greater understanding of food, cooking, ingredients and nutrition from an early age, it is hoped young people can get the absolute best start in life and reduce chances of childhood obesity – leaving the opinion that “healthy food is boring” as something of the past.

By Laxmi Haigh

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