Food for Thought: promoting healthy diets among children and young people

The ‘Food for thought’ report describes measures needed to help promote healthier diets among children and young people.

Doctors and other healthcare professionals are now becoming more concerned than ever about the impact of poor diet on the nation’s health, particularly the health of children. Poor diet not only presents an important health risk, it also places financial strain on the NHS resources.

At present, the majority of children, young people and adults in the UK are not meeting the dietary requirements. In particular, there is a high intake of saturated fat, added sugars and salt, alongside insufficient levels of fruit, vegetables, fibre and oily fish. This type of diet is found most commonly among individuals from lower socioeconomic groups.
Unhealthy diet is strongly linked to a variety of chronic diseases such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes. The issue of diet-related ill health in the UK is thought to lead to 70’000 premature deaths each year, roughly 12% of the total number of deaths. Equally, poor diet was found to have a high financial impact on the NHS, costing around £6 billion per year.

Despite the fact that the majority of children and young adults do not meet the dietary requirements, many children and adults in the UK are aware of the importance of consuming a healthy diet and are concerned about the amount of unhealthy content in food and drink products.

The report identified certain factors that influence children and young people’s diets:
- The developmental environment before birth and in infancy.
- Interactions with others. In other words, parents and carers can directly and indirectly influence their children’s dietary preferences as young children model their parent’s intake. As the child grows older they are also influenced by what their peers eat.
- Education and health promotion. These include mass media and school-based educational programmes.
- Consumer marketing. Mass media advertising is known to have to have a direct impact on children and young people’s dietary choices and an indirect effect on dietary preferences.
- Stakeholder marketing. Many companies influence policy makers through stakeholder marketing in the form of corporate social responsibility. This provides a platform for companies to influence the public health agenda.
- Access and availability. Children are influenced by the food and drink products that are available in their surrounding environment. This relates to both the home and school environments.
- Deprivation. Strongly linked to the social and economic inequalities that determine an individual’s health and wellbeing.
- Social changes. They have promoted a culture of convenience that has an impact on young people and children’s dietary behaviour. This is associated with the consumption of pre-prepared meals, snacking and the availability of energy dense food and drink products.

The report suggests implementing measures that tackle the environmental influences listed above. Measures include tackling the wide availability, promotion and affordability of unhealthy food and drink products. Implementation of such measures will require action at every level – families, communities, schools, local authorities, industry and national government, as well as international collaboration on cross-border issues.

The report criticises the emphasis that the government has placed on industry involvement in developing food and nutrition policy in the UK. It led to a focus on personal responsibility and voluntary action by industry, delivering only limited public health gains. The report argues for ensuring that a strong regulatory framework is a central feature of the strategy to improve dietary patters in the UK, giving manufacturers, retailers and caterers a lesser role.

The report proposes several methods to address the issue of poor diet:
1. Improving attitudes and knowledge about healthy dietary behaviour through education, social marketing and health promotion; and consumer information.
2. Limiting unhealthy cues and the promotion of unhealthy food and drink products. This can be achieved through restriction on mass media advertising and other marketing communications; and regulating industry practices and changing the retail environment.
3. Creating an environment that promotes healthy dietary behaviour by altering the physical availability of unhealthy and healthy products, regulating food provided in schools and setting a good example in the healthcare environment as well as regulating the nutritional content of processed food and drink products.
4. International cooperation on nutrition.

To read the full report, click here

To read the executive summary, click here

Media coverage: 

The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/jul/13/doctors-tax-sugar-drinks-uk-obesity-bma-children

BBC News: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-33479118