The number of Irish children who are overweight and obese has fallen in recent years, however children are still not eating enough fruit and vegetables and are consuming too much salt and saturated fat, a major new survey has found.
The National Children's Food Survey II (NCFS II) was carried out by the Irish Universities Nutrition Alliance (IUNA). It provides details on food intake, body weight, physical activity and the eating behaviours of children aged between five and 12. The survey covers the period 2017/18.
It found that at least three in four children (78%) were within the normal weight range, while 16% were classified as overweight or obese - 14% of boys and 19% of girls.
This was lower than the NCFS survey carried out in 2003/04, which found that 25% of children were overweight or obese - 19% of boys and 30% of girls.
Physical activity among this group was relatively high, with children being active for an average of 81 minutes per day. Overall, 69% achieved the recommended level of physical activity per day, which is at least 60 minutes.
The average time spent on screens for this age group was 81 minutes per day.
When it came to food and nutrient intake, the survey found that staple foods for children in this age group were breads, potatoes, milk, meat, fruit, vegetables and breakfast cereals.
Intake of fruit and vegetables was considered low, with children tending to consume about three servings per day, which is well below the recommended five-to-seven servings per day. Children tended to eat one serving of vegetables and two servings of fruit, including a half serving as unsweetened fruit juice.
The average consumption of milk was about one glass per day, while breakfast cereals were consumed by 91% of children.
The report noted that "essentially all children eat meat", however it warned that more processed meat is consumed than fresh meat.
The main drinks consumed by this age group were water, milk, soft drinks, which tended to be sugar sweetened, and unsweetened fruit juice.
The researchers found that about 18% of calories that children consume are from ‘top shelf' foods that are low in essential nutrients, such as biscuits, cakes, sweets and savoury snacks.
Saturated fat accounted for 14% of total energy intake, which is higher than the recommended 10%. Key contributors to this included meat products, spreading fats and ‘top shelf' foods.
The average daily intake of salt (5g) was higher than the maximum levels recommended by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland for children in this age group, although salt intake has decreased by about 1g since the 2003/04 survey.
The main contributors to salt intake were meats, particularly cured and processed meats, and breads.
Meanwhile, the average intake of free sugars was 9.5% of energy, which was just below the recommended maximum intake of 10%. However, 40% of children were consuming more than the recommended 10%.
Free sugars are simple sugars added to foods by the manufacturer or consumer. They are also sugars that are naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juices.
The report also found that while children were consuming more fibre compared to the 2003/04 survey - 14g versus 12g - this was still lower than the recommendations by the European Food Safety Authority (14-19g).
While children were generally getting enough vitamins and minerals in their diet, a significant number had inadequate intakes of vitamin D, calcium, iron and folate.
Overall, children consumed most of their calories at home, however 70% of parents said that they found it difficult to provide a healthy diet for their children, due to issues such as the child's likes or dislikes and the use of convenience foods.
A total of 600 children took part in the study.
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