top of page
  • Writer's pictureBeverley Mort

Diet and activity habits in children and young people

Overweight and obesity is becoming a serious issue in children and young people. The latest data from government surveys have been published by Public Health England. Although, the data published illustrates population averages, and therefore it can vary considerably across populations and within socio-demographic groups, it still makes for grim reading.

When it comes to fruit and vegetable intake, only one in 13 teenage boys and one in 11 teenage girls consume five or more portions a day. For this age group, going through hormone changes and changes to their bodies it is critical to get enough vitamins and minerals to enable their bodies to develop to the fullest extent.

When looking at food energy for children from the age of 4 years up to 18 years, energy intake from non-milk extrinsic sugars - in other words sugar from food and drink, is more than double the recommended levels. In other words children are getting up to 15% of their energy needs from sugary food and drinks, when the maximum should be no more than 5%. And boys are worse than girls, but only just! Consuming so much sugary food and drink can lead to obesity, spikes in insulin (and subsequent 'sugar' crashes), and childhood type II diabetes. These figures are shocking.

On a more positive note children are getting food energy from fat below maximum recommended levels, but energy from saturated fat is approx. 2% above what is recommended. In other words children are consuming too many bad fats from say ready meals, take-aways, fried food and not enough good fats such as those from fish, and nuts. This is reflected in the data from the Diet and Nutrition Survey (2012/13 to 2013/4), which shows that children are consuming on average between 10-35 g oily fish per week, when the recommended minimum level is 140g. Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines are an excellent source of omega 3 fatty acids. We cannot make these essential fats in our body so have to consume them in our diet. An alternative vegetarian source is flax seeds - just sprinkle it on your breakfast every morning. We need omega 3 for many bodily functions and its great for your skin as well!

Along with consuming a healthy diet, exercise and getting active is great for your health Getting children active at a young age and throughout the teenage years in my opinion stays with them for life. Now lets look at the statistics! Public Health England recommends children from birth to 5 years should be active for at least 3 hours across every day. This means walking/toddling, playing, swimming, throw and catch a ball every day. The benefits to young children (and adults) is that the child sleeps better, builds muscles and bone strength, helps with brain development and learning and maintains healthy weight. From 5 years to 18 years it is recommended that children aim to be active for minimum 60 minutes every day, with activities such as cycling, walking, playing outdoor games, swimming. The aim is to sit less and move more.

According to data from the health survey for England 2015, up to 30% of children aged 5-7 years meet physical activity recommendations, but this declines as the children get older with 25% met at age 8-10, approx. 16% met at age 11-12 and for 13-15 year olds for girls it drops to 9% and boys 15%. There are many benefits to exercise, not least for weight management but also for helping with mental health.

When looking at time spent sedentary for 6 hours or more in leisure time both boys and girls between the ages of 13-15 were the most sedentary at 18-23% during weekdays and 35-36% at weekends. The trend is linear upwards from a young age. In other words, as children grow up they become more sedentary i.e. they are less active.

This type of lifestyle choice if carried into adulthood will lead to increases in overweight and obesity, statistics are already starting to show this, where two thirds of adults in the UK are either overweight or obese. The message is that children need to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables, cut down on sugary food and drink, increase the amount of oily fish eaten and reduce the amount of take-aways and ready meals. And get active every day!


bottom of page