Healthier pack lunches needed to change kids' eating habits: Study

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

The study focuses on a life stage, when many positive and negative eating habits are established that are taken through to adulthood. (© iStock.com)
The study focuses on a life stage, when many positive and negative eating habits are established that are taken through to adulthood. (© iStock.com)

Related tags: Nutrition

Children as young as 9 years old are receiving almost half of their daily energy requirements from "discretionary" or junk foods, research has discovered.

The study focuses on a life stage, when many positive and negative eating habits are established that are taken through to adulthood.

In Europe, particularly in the UK​, there have been changes in the way that nutrition guidelines are expressed, with the historical emphasis on nutrient profiles progressively complemented by the use of food groups and daily servings.

Core foods are nutrient-rich and are distinct from ‘discretionary’ foods, which are energy-dense, nutrient-poor, high in saturated fat and/or added sugar and/or salt.

Study details

children healthy lunchbox
"Substituting a high-fat, high-sugar or high-salt food item with a healthier choice in the lunchbox might make a difference. (© iStock.com)

Researchers from the University of Adelaide began looking into the food intake of 430 South Australian children aged 9-10. These children were from low to high socio-economic status families.

As a group, over half of the children met estimated average requirements for key macro- and micronutrients, with the exception of fibre (inadequate in 41% of boys and 24% of girls). Children obtained 55% of their daily energy from core foods.

Most children had fewer than the recommended servings of vegetables (91%) and meat/alternatives (99.8%), whereas boys generally ate fewer servings of grains and cereals than recommended (87%), and girls ate fewer servings of dairy (83%).

Diet quality scores indicated room for improvement (median score of 26 for boys and 25 for girls, out of a maximum of 73 points).

"At this stage in their lives, girls need to eat more dairy as they head towards puberty, as this is important for their bone density,"​ said lead author Dr Melissa Whitrow from the University of Adelaide's School of Public Health and the Robinson Research Institute.

"Variety of food is also an issue. Red meat tended to be the dominant meat, whereas fish should be consumed in a healthy diet at least weekly. It's important for families to understand that processed meat is a discretionary food, not a core food, and is often high in salt and fat."

She added that socio-economic status made little difference to the dietary problems highlighted in the study.

The results broadly mimic those found in a 2007 national survey​ that showed diets of 9–13-year-old children were not adequate in terms of calcium. In contrast, sodium, sugar and saturated fat intake were excessive.

In terms of core food intake, the survey also found diets did not meet food-based guidelines for vegetables, fruit and dairy, and, in the period between 1995 and 2007, vegetable intake also decreased.

"Based on the results of our study, there is much to be done to encourage 9-to-10-year-old children and their families to make healthier food choices,”​ said Whitrow.

“For example, substituting at least one high-fat, high-sugar or high-salt food item with a healthier food choice in the school lunchbox each day might make a difference,"​ she added.

Tasty but nutrient-poor

processed meat, country of origin label, COOL, Copyright Jodi Jacobson
Processed meat could be considered a discretionary food, not a core food, and is often high in salt and fat. (© iStock.com/Jodi Jacobson)

Whitrow explained that as a group, the majority of children had adequate intakes of micronutrients although, typically, almost half of dietary energy was derived from foods that were nutrient-poor.

“This is possible because of the relatively high average energy intake compared to previous surveys of children of a similar age, that is equal to overweight and obesity rates observed in the sample and in society more broadly,”​ she explained.  

Therefore although discretionary foods were nutrient-poor, they could contribute to essential micronutrient intakes when consumed in large quantities, although this meant high intakes of saturated fat, sugar and salt.

This demonstrated the value of recommendations about servings of core food groups and variety within them, in addition to guidelines for micronutrient requirements.

The researchers believed that eating in line with these recommendations would curb energy intake at the same time as ensuring optimal micronutrient profiles.

Source: Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics

Published online ahead of print, DOI: 10.1111/jhn.12358

“Core food intakes of Australian children aged 9–10 years: nutrients, daily servings and diet quality in a community cross-sectional sample.”

Authors: M. J. Whitrow, L. Moran, M. J. Davies, C. E. Collins, T. L. Burrows, S. Edwards, V. M. Moore

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