Girls eat only half their five-a-day of fruit and vegetables, research finds

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Doctors have voiced fears about teenagers’ health after new government research showed that many children’s diets contain too much saturated fat and too little fruit, vegetables and iron.

Girls’ eating habits emerged as a particular concern: those aged 11 to 18 consume on average only 2.7 of the recommended five portions a day of fruit and vegetables, with just 5% eating what official guidelines say are needed for good health. Boys the same age eat too little as well, with an average of 3.1 portions a day, and just 13% having the full five a day.

Teenage girls are meant to consume 8mg a day of iron, but 44% do not do so, according to findings from the annual National Diet and Nutrition Surveys for 2008/09 and 2009/10. That suggests that they are eating too little bread, cereals, meat, meat products, fish, eggs and nuts.

The results prompted the Department of Health to warn that children’s “poor eating habits risk storing up a number of potential problems for later life, such as heart disease and some cancers”.

The survey also showed that children of all age groups continue to consume more than the recommended amount of saturated fats Adults typically get 12.8% of their food energy from these, which should not exceed 11%. It is the same with sugar: intake of non-milk extrinsic sugars – sugars that have been added to food or released during processing – provides more than the recommended 11% of food energy in 19- to 64-year-olds and children aged four and over.

“These new figures show that a significant number of children are overweight, and equally worryingly, the majority of our teenagers don’t eat as healthily as they should,” said Professor Terence Stephenson, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. “It’s naive to think we can defuse the ‘ticking time-bomb’ of long-term effects on health with simply a nudge here and a nudge there. Voluntary agreements with industry are fine as far as they go but what will make a difference is an evidence-based, and possibly regulatory, approach to protecting and promoting our children’s health.”

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