top of page

What are our teens eating? New data

The latest edition of the National Diet and Nutrition survey is out – taking a combined look at food intakes across the UK for 2014--16.

There is good news!

Well, a little. Teenage consumption of ‘free sugars’ has reduced significantly, along with the rest of the population. This means we, along with our teenagers are eating less sugar in the form of things like cakes, biscuits, honey and sweets and particularly sugar sweetened drinks.

Now the not so good. Free sugar intakes are highest in teenagers than in any other population group; providing over 14% of their total energy intake when ideally it should be around 5%.

Reducing intakes of free sugars is important; unlike the sugars found in fruit and milk which come bound up with a package of other ‘good stuff’ like fibre and vitamins, free sugars purely provide energy. Whilst energy is important for growing adolescents, it’s better to get this from wholegrain carbohydrates and a balanced diet including plenty of fruit and vegetables. A high free sugar intake is linked with tooth decay, obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Go visit your granny.

It seems grandparents are leading the way for fruit and veg consumption, munching their way on average through 4.3 portions a day (just pipping Mum and Dad at 4.2 portions). But somehow these family eating habits aren’t translating to our teens who are still only achieving 2.7 portions per day. Average consumption of oily fish is well below the recommended 1 portion (140g per week) and worryingly fibre intakes in 11-18 year olds have dropped to an 8-year low.

All this translates into our teenagers achieving intakes of vitamins and minerals well below the minimum levels needed to prevent deficiency. The picture is worse in girls; 54% aren’t even meeting the minimum intakes for iron, 38% are not eating sufficient potassium, 27% are missing the lowest intake level of zinc and iodine and 22% aren’t getting sufficient calcium. The picture is similar for boys, of whom 11-18% are missing the lowest level of adequate intake for these important nutrients.

But does this actually translate to poorer health?

Yes! The study, run by Public Health England, also took blood samples from individuals to see if the low intakes were translating into health issues. They found:

  • 9% of 11-18 year old girls had low iron status or iron deficiency anaemia.

  • 28% girls and 15% boys had low blood folate concentrations.

  • 26% teenagers had low Vitamin D status.

So what to do?

You may find trying to restrict sugary foods at this age is counterproductive – new independence and a bit of money in their pockets mean there are plenty of opportunities for teens to stock up on cans of sugary drinks. While we can gently encourage healthier choices, flat out denial of foods they enjoy can easily backfire and lead to other issues. Try instead to offer plenty of options at home, for a packed lunch or as healthy snacks in their school bag to squish in more of the healthier stuff and get a good balance.

What to stock up on

All the colours of the rainbow – and plenty of brown. Offer a wide variety of fruit and vegetables, whole grain carbohydrates, nuts seeds and pulses at mealtimes. Easy grab from the fridge/fruit bowl options like grapes, satsumas and tubs of nuts and dried fruit can help for snacking. Mixing brown rice or pasta in with white can help reduce the ‘yuk factor’, and as time goes on you can gradually reduce the amount of white in the mix.

Have plenty of low fat dairy products. Teenagers can be a bit reluctant to drink milk (that’s for the baby brother), and if they choose a milk alternative such as soya or nut milks, look for one that has been fortified with calcium. Yogurt for breakfast is a good start especially for those who can’t face a big breakfast– and as the weather heats up a decaf iced latte can have a little more appeal than a luke warm glass of milk. If you have a sporty teen, worth sharing with them that milk has been shown in trials to be as effective as pricey sports recovery drinks.

Go fishing. Sardines, mackerel, salmon and trout are all good sources of Omega 3. I see lots of scrunched up ‘I don’t like it’ faces to oily fish from teenagers, but persevere with different recipes. A good coating of pesto can help, or try topping with chopped olives and sundried tomatoes and wrapping up as a parcel in greaseproof paper to bake. You can also try hemp seed, walnuts and ground flaxseeds on cereal, in yogurt or on overnight oats or salads and use their oils for salad dressings.

Pump in some iron – lean red meat, green leafy vegetables, eggs and whole grains are all good sources. Beef based chili; frittata and whole grain pitas all seem to make teenager approved options.

From screens to sunshine – although we can get some vitamin D from our food, most comes from the action of sunlight on our skin. While we need to remember to keep everyone sun safe, controlled sun exposure allows is important (and getting out amongst mother nature is also good for the spirit!). Consider a vitamin D supplement especially in the winter months; speak to your pharmacist to be sure you are choosing something age appropriate.

Finally, remember that the most important thing is that our teenagers have a good relationship with food. It’s not just about nutrients, it’s about socialising, friends, family and so much more. Try to listen to cues from your teenager to help guide you both to a good compromise – where they feel they have enough independence and choice, but that still provides plenty of healthy options and fits in with family life.

bottom of page