Key findings on body weight and food consumption habits in Irish pre-school children identified issues that need to be addressed to promote healthy eating, including:
- About one in four pre-school schoolchildren are classified as overweight or obese.
- Between the ages 1 and 4 years there are considerable changes in dietary patterns showing the development of food preferences and dietary habits.
- At age 4 years food choices within some of the main food groups indicate the development of food habits that may lead to nutrient imbalance – whole milk instead of reduced fat milk, processed meats instead of fresh meat, white bread rather than brown/wholemeal and fruit juice instead of whole fruit.
- Between the ages 1 and 4 years there was an increased intake of soft drinks and less nutritious foods such as biscuits and confectionery.
- Most children are getting sufficient fibre, vitamins and minerals but significant proportions of children have inadequate intakes of iron and vitamin D.
- About a quarter of energy was obtained from sugars (both milk sugars and non-milk sugars) with the proportion from non-milk sugars increasing from age 1 to 4 years.
- Daily salt intake is higher than the maximum levels recommended by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland.
“We need clear guidelines for healthy eating for this age group – guidelines that focus on appropriate portion sizes, lower consumption of salt and sugar, and higher intake of vegetables and fruit and key vitamins and minerals,” says Dr Anne Nugent, UCD Institute of Food and Health, University College Dublin.
This research will provide scientific knowledge that will support innovation and competitiveness in the Irish food industry. It will ensure that the development and implementation of policy for food safety and nutrition at national and EU level is strongly evidence-based and reflects national needs.
Professor Albert Flynn, University College Cork, says that early childhood is most important for developing good eating habits. “The pre-school years are critical in shaping eating behaviours. We need to identify ways to help parents and carers to establish healthy dietary habits in pre-school children”.
The study was conducted by researchers from University College Cork and University College Dublin as part of the Irish Universities Nutrition Alliance. It was funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, under the “Food for Health Research Initiative”which is also supported by the Department of Health and the Health Research Board.
This scientific study which documents diet and eating behaviour of a nationally representative sample of 500 Irish pre-school children was carried out by the Irish Universities Nutrition Alliance (IUNA) at University College Dublin and University College Cork.
Key findings from the study revealed:
- The six food groups which may be considered staples for pre-school children are milk, meat, bread, breakfast cereals, fruit and vegetables. Each of these was consumed by practically all children in amounts sufficient to make important nutritional contributions to the diet.
- Milk consumed as a drink or with breakfast cereal was the most important source of energy (29%) in 1 year olds, decreasing to about 11% in 4 year olds.
- Between the ages 1 and 4 years there are considerable changes in dietary patterns showing the development of food preferences and dietary habits. The reduction in the proportion of the diet obtained from milk is accompanied by increased proportions from foods such as bread and meat. There was also an increase in less nutritious foods such as biscuits and confectionery and in soft drinks, both sugar sweetened and low calorie.
- At age 4 years food choices within the main food groups indicate the development of food habits that may lead to nutrient imbalance – milk was consumed mostly as whole milk rather than reduced fat milk, meat mostly as processed meats rather than fresh meat, bread mostly as white bread rather than brown/wholemeal and mostly fruit juice instead of whole fruit.
- The dietary proportions of fat, carbohydrate and protein were within recommended ranges and intake of dietary fibre was generally adequate for this age group.
- Intakes of most vitamins and minerals, including calcium and B-vitamins, were adequate. Almost a quarter of 1 year olds and about 10% of 2 and 3 year olds had inadequate intakes of iron. Intakes of vitamin D were generally low, indicating that a significant proportion of children may be at risk of inadequate intakes of vitamin D, particularly in winter.
- About 25% of energy was obtained from sugars (including milk sugars and non-milk sugars) with the proportion from non-milk sugars increasing from 16% in 1 year olds to 20% in 4 year olds. Fruit and fruit juices were the main contributors to intake of non-milk sugars at all ages. Intakes of sugar from biscuits, confectionery and beverages increased from age 1 to 4 years.
- Mean daily intakes of salt exceeded the FSAI targets of 2g for 1-3 year olds and 3g for 4 year olds. Meat, especially cured and processed meats, was the main contributor to salt intake and the contribution of cured/processed meats and bread to salt intake increased from age 1-4 years.
- About 60% of parents thought that the foods that their child was eating could be healthier. According to parents, the main barriers to providing a healthy diet for the child were the child’s likes or dislikes, convenience and other people minding the child.
- Overall, 77% of 2-4 year old children were within the normal weight range as classified using UK-WHO criteria and 23% were defined as overweight or obese.
(Produced by UCD University Relations)