Irish teenagers are not eating enough fruit and vegetables. They are consuming less than three servings a day while consumption of sugar, salt and saturated fat is higher than recommended, according to a new national survey.
They eat less fibre than is advisable while significant numbers have inadequate intake of calcium, vitamin D, C, folate, vitamin A, B6, iron and riboflavin.
The National Teens' Food Surveyhas found that a quarter of teenagers are classified as being overweight or obese.
The study of 428 teenagers aged 13 to 18 was carried out by researchers in University College Dublin, Munster Technological University, University College Cork and Technological University Dublin. It was funded by the Department of Food.
The study documented the diet and body weight of a nationally representative sample of secondary school students countrywide during 2019 and until March 2020. The survey included body measurements and information on ways of living, such as physical activity.
The prevalence of being overweight and obese is 24 per cent (boys 23 per cent, girls 24 per cent), up from 18 per cent (boys 18 per cent, girls 18 per cent) in 2005-06.
Eating at home is still the main source of calories for teenagers. But one-fifth of calories were consumed from food prepared outside the home. The main barriers noted by teenagers to a healthy diet were likes and dislikes, convenience and food availability.
Recent dietary changes include reduced intake of milk, potatoes, fruit juice, sugar-sweetened drinks, sugar and salt and increased intake of pasta, rice and savouries, fruit and water.
The reduction in teenager consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks and slight rise in fruit, instead of fruit juice, were "positive changes" and "great to see", said Janette Walton, from Munster Technological University.
The reduction in salt and sugar intake in particular was “huge” due to the reformulation of food over the past decade, added Dr Walton.
However, the reduction in milk intake was “a cause of concern” due to the importance of calcium and vitamin D for this particular age group.
Breige McNulty, from UCD Institute of Food and Health, echoed these comments. Dr McNulty said it is important to focus on micronutrient deficiencies and improve.
What about physical exercise?
Meanwhile, participation of teenagers in physical activities is relatively high with an average of 81 minutes per day spent being physically active. A total of 67 per cent of teenagers met the recommendation of at least 60 minutes per day of physical activity.
Median daily time in sedentary behaviours was 455 minutes, and 231 minutes of screen time.
Dr Walton said the data provided by this study can be used in the development of healthy-eating guidelines.
“We need to continue to promote guidelines for healthy eating for this age group . . . that focus on lower consumption of fat, salt and sugar and higher intake of vegetables and fruit and other foods that provide key vitamins and minerals,” she said.
Dr McNulty said the findings would assist in the development of programmes to tackle obesity.
“The levels of obesity in teenagers have increased in recent years, with similar rates across both genders. This is in contrast to the stabilisation observed in other population groups,” she said.
“The high levels of teenagers affected by overweight and obesity need to be addressed and targeted strategies for this population group are required,” she added.