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National Children’s Food Survey shows children are not eating enough fruit and veg, but intake of wholemeal bread is up
Children aged between 5 and 12 in Ireland are not eating enough fruit and vegetables with the majority eating just three portions a day, well below the daily recommended level of 5 to 7, a new study has found.
The latest National Children’s School Survey II, which documented the dietary and body weight of a nationally representative sample of 600 children aged 5 to 12 from primary schools around Ireland in 2017 and 2018, revealed that while most children regularly ate fruit and vegetables, the overall intake was low at just three servings a day. This included about one serving of vegetables and two servings of fruit, including a half serving as unsweetened fruit juice.
The survey found that apples, oranges and bananas were the most common fruits eaten by the school children and while the average intake of whole fruits was higher than the findings of the same survey in 2003-2004, the types of fruits commonly consumer have remained unchanged.
According to the survey, the majority or 91 per cent of children ate breakfast cereals which included ready to eat (85 per cent) and hot oat cereals such as porridge (28 per cent). The good news is that compared to 2003-2004, more children are now eating high fibre cereals and porridge.
The good news is that today more children are eating more wholemeal or brown bread
Bread was one of the staple foods of Irish children and was eaten by 99 per cent of 5 to 12-year olds in the survey. On average Irish children are eating two slices of bread a day. While the amount of bread children eat a day has not changed since the 2003-2004 survey, the good news is that today more children are eating more wholemeal or brown bread.
The study, which was carried out by a team of researchers from University College Cork, Cork Institute of Technology, University College Dublin and Technological University Dublin and funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, also found that while children eat meat, more was consumed as processed rather than fresh meat.
According to the survey, children are eating 5g of salt on average every day which is higher than the maximum levels recommended by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland for children of this age, with cured and processed meats and breads being the main contributors to salt intake.
Overall the survey found that one in six schoolchildren were overweight or obese however, the results also show that the levels of overweight and obesity have stabilised or decreased in recent years, especially in girls.
Biscuits, confectionery, snacks and sugar sweetened drinks that are low in essential nutrients provided about 18 per cent of calories for the 5 to 12-year olds, the survey found.
In relation to physical activity the survey found that just 69 per cent of school children met the recommended level of physical activity of at least 60 minutes a day and on average children spent 254 minutes a day sitting down and 86 minutes on screen time.
" These findings highlight areas in the diets of Irish children that continue to need to be addressed,"
Dr Jeanette Walton, from the Cork Institute of Technology, said that the scientific data provided by the study can be used in the development of healthy eating guidelines. “We need to continue to promote guidelines for healthy eating for this age group- guidelines that focus on appropriate portion sizes, lower consumption of fat, salt and sugar, and higher intake of vegetables and fruit and other foods that provide key vitamins and minerals.”
According to Dr Breige McNulty from the UCD Institute of Food and Health, the research findings will assist in the development of programmes to tackle childhood obesity. “Although we still have high levels of obesity in children, this study shows that overweight and obesity appear to have stabilised or decreased in recent years, especially in girls. The high levels of overweight and obesity in school children need to be addressed.”
Commenting Sarah Noone, Dietitian with the Irish Heart Foundation said, ‘’There is some positive news for children’s diets in the latest findings. Children are eating more hot high fibre cereals like porridge, and more whole meal and brown bread. They are also drinking less sugar sweetened drinks and more water since the 2003-2004 survey.”
“However, the findings also highlight that children are still consuming well below the recommended 5-7 servings of fruit and veg a day and that on average 18 per cent of calories in children’s diets come from ‘treat’ foods like biscuits, crisps, sweets and chocolates. Although salt intake has reduced, it is still too high and children are consuming more of their meat as processed meat e.g. ham and sausages. Additionally, parents are now identifying that there are a number of barriers to healthy eating including, a child’s likes and dislikes, the need for convenience, advertising and other people. These findings highlight areas in the diets of Irish children that continue to need to be addressed.”
At the Irish Heart Foundation, we are committed to helping children achieve at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day. See here for more information about our Active Schools Programme.
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