Young people think good health = looking good

  • Olivia Fens

A new report on Irish children’s attitudes to diet and obesity has found that most students believe that being healthy means looking good.

The Voice of Young People, a Report on Children’s Attitudes to Diet, Lifestyle and Obesity, conducted with Irish children aged 10-14, found that children were more concerned with the social consequences of being overweight or obese than they were about the health implications.

According to the students, the consequences of eating ‘unhealthy’ food were ‘being fat’, having spotty or greasy skin and having rotten teeth. It was found that the internal effects of unhealthy foods were not given much consideration.

Although most of the students surveyed for the report were aware of the food pyramid, only 19% ate fruit every day and only 18% reported eating the recommended vegetable intake. Almost 40% of children consumed sweets daily. More worryingly 36% of children ate dinner in front of the television and a considerable number reported eating two to three takeaways per week.

Speaking at the launch of the report, Dublin nutritionist Paula Mee said that proper nutrition in childhood ‘can reinforce lifelong eating habits that contribute to a child’s overall wellbeing and help them grow to their full potential and maintain a healthy life’.

“A healthy, balanced diet combined with an active lifestyle is paramount in maintaining a healthy weight. Unfortunately today in Ireland many children do little exercise and eat a diet that contains too much of the wrong types of food,” she explained.

Participating children were asked to work with their families to come up with ways they might lead healthier and more active lives.
The top ten ideas from primary school children were:
• Exercise regularly
• Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables (five portions per day)
• Walk instead of drive to school and work
• Eat less fast food, sweets and junk
• Drink plenty of water
• Eat healthy home-cooked meals
• Do not smoke
• Eat a healthy breakfast
• Spend less time watching TV or on the computer
• Spend time exercising together as a family.

For secondary students the priorities were similar:
• Exercise daily
• Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables (five portions per day)
• Eat a well, balanced diet
• Drink 6-8 glasses of water per day
• Eat less takeaway and junk food
• Healthy family meals – meat and fresh vegetables
• Play sports – join a team or club
• Fewer sweets and less sugar
• Eat a healthy breakfast
• Spend less time watching TV and more time bonding with the family.

The findings of the report suggest that sport and active play are key to children socialising. Skipping, chasing, hide and seek, and football in the garden were fundamental. Children who engaged in team sports or activities were likely to be more active than children who took part in individual sports like swimming or horse riding. This is believed to be due to the structured timetable of practice days and match days, encouraging a minimum participation of two days per week, where children exceed the recommended activity levels.

The children of the study demonstrated a high level of consistency in sorting healthy foods from unhealthy foods. However, when they were given the option between nutritious lunch options and meals with high-sugar contents, they tended towards the unhealthier option.

Where family meals were eaten, they were balanced.

Almost all children were aware of the food pyramid, recognising it as a guide to healthy eating. However, while awareness of the food pyramid was high, understanding of the pyramid varied among students and schools. The study found that some primary school children were more informed than their second level counterparts.

The study added that among students, knowledge about the recommended daily consumption of each food group was the area with the greatest deficit in understanding. In particular, very few were informed as to the correct number of portions from each food group to consume daily.

The research also confirmed the existence of strong prejudices and the enduring social stigma in relation to overweight and obese people, as seen in previous research.

For children who took part in the research, being healthy was very closely aligned to being physically fit and active, playing sports, or engaging in outdoor activities.
Weight and size tended to be the barometer of health for children.

Other research has shown that children as young as four can have a strong prejudice against overweight people. This report found that children expressed little sympathy for people who are overweight. The perception was that such people were lazy, spent all their time watching television and were therefore responsible for their condition.

Feedback from the schoolchildren points to the importance of the inter-relationship between the individual child, the school and the home environment in influencing attitudes and behaviour concerning children’s health.

In almost all groups, a number of children pointed to the fact that very often, owing to work commitments, one parent will eat dinner at a later time to the rest of the family. Evidence also emerged across the groups that eating dinner while watching television was common.

“I usually eat diner at the table but if I wanted to watch a soccer match I would be allowed to bring my dinner into the TV room and eat in there”, one first-year secondary school student from Kildare said.

This supports previous research, which found that the majority of Irish families were eating a meal together but 36% routinely ate evening meals in front of the television, rising to 45% at weekends.

The Voice of Young People report found that a considerable number of children, particularly from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, reported eating two to three takeaway dinners per week. The most common takeaways were Chinese takeaways, pizza and food from the ‘local chipper’.

“My ma never cooks on a Friday so we just get a takeaway, usually it would be a Chinese or maybe a pizza”, one first-year secondary school student from Dublin said.

According to the Report of the National Taskforce on Obesity 2005, rates of overweight and obesity in Ireland have trebled over the last decade and there are now approximately 300,000 overweight and obese children in Ireland with another 10,000 children adding to this figure every year.

The health consequences of overweight and obesity include hypertension, angina, heart attack, osteoarthritis and type 2 diabetes.

Prof Patrick Wall, associate professor of UCD School of Public Health and Population Science said obesity in children had reached epidemic levels in Ireland, with many overweight children going on to become overweight adults.

“The number of obese Irish adults and children is soaring and is becoming a public health issue of epidemic proportions,” Prof Wall said.

However he insisted that junk food is only part of the problem. Research from Trinity College Dublin found that 78% of seven-to-nine year olds spend three hours every day in front of the television.

“This report uncovers some interesting findings around children’s attitudes to diet, lifestyle and obesity and forms a basis for moving forward to tackle this serious issue with greater information and understanding”, Prof Wall added.


Anonymous - 18/04/2008 12:58

I know a lot of parents, who, worn out from the week will have pizza or a chinese on a Friday.

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