The current diet of UK children does not meet current dietary recommendations for several nutrients, with portion sizes containing too much salt and sugar and not enough fruit, fibre, or vegetables.
Findings from the nation’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) also reveals a lack of guidance on standard portion sizes for children, leading to excess calorie consumption and worsening of the obesity epidemic.
SACN advises the UK government on nutrition and related health matters.
Systematic review evidence suggests that larger portion sizes of snacks and meals provided in preschool are linked with higher food and energy intakes in the short term (under six months).
The report’s authors advise policymakers to “develop and communicate age-appropriate portion sizes for food and drinks, including for vegetables, fruit, fruit juice, and milk, for children aged one to five years”.
Sugar’s role in dental health and NHS workload
SACN, which recently published a report questioning the evidence linking processed foods with increased risks of adverse health outcomes, also finds sugar to be too common in children’s diets.
The independent report highlights sugar’s role in dental issues and in long-term health conditions that place considerable strain on National Health Service (NHS) resources.
In addition, findings from two long-running projects found key nutrients were unbalanced in the average diet, and consumption of total vegetables and fruit decreased in children from poorer backgrounds.
“Evidence indicated that certain groups of children, including children from lower socioeconomic status households and some ethnic groups, may be at risk of inadequate intakes of iron, zinc, vitamin A, and vitamin D, and low vitamin D status,” the report adds.
Official data currently shows that one in ten reception-age children is now obese, with researchers believing the obesity epidemic will cost the NHS €11.7bn (£10bn) a year by 2050.
Repeated taste exposure helpful in developing healthy eating habits
Dr Carmel Houston-Price, professor of language and cognitive development at the University of Reading, highlighted the report’s mention of ways to help parents develop healthy eating habits for their children.
This included the importance of repeatedly offering pre-school children the foods parents wanted them to eat.
“Research has been carried out to find ways to make [repeated taste exposure] easier for parents,” said Houston-Price.
“There is now a substantial body of research showing that familiarity with vegetables outside of mealtimes can make children more amenable to tasting them at mealtimes.
“Knowing what vegetables look like, how they grow, and where they come from can be the first step towards children becoming familiar with their taste, leading children to ultimately accept them at mealtimes.”
‘Moderate or adequate’ quality of available evidence in report
Dr Ada Garcia, senior lecturer in public health nutrition at the University of Glasgow, hailed the report as “welcomed and timely” but emphasised that the quality of available evidence was deemed mostly moderate or adequate.
This is largely due to the difficulty of conducting good quality studies like randomised controlled trials in children, she added.
Garcia also raised the issue of outdated population-based data on dietary intake, pointing out that existing data for young children (12-18 months) from the diet and nutrition survey of infants and young children (DNSIYC) dated back to 2011.
“The food environment has shifted greatly in the past years, in particular for higher availability of foods targeted to young children which are in a large proportion not nutrient-dense or are high in sugars,” she said.
First Steps Nutrition Trust, a UK independent public health nutrition charity, was critical of some of the report’s recommendations, commenting that they were not “easily translated into clear practical advice (eg. 'give this’, ‘avoid this’)”.
“We will need to wait for clarification from SACN and/or the interpretation of the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) when they update public health guidance on the NHS webpages,” it said.