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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 January 2008, 10:18 GMT
How bad are children's diets?
By Clare Murphy
Health reporter, BBC News

Tempting child with healthy food
Cucumber may be more of a rarity than crisps for today's children
Research carried out by the British Heart Foundation suggests that many children no longer see a packet of crisps or a chocolate bar as a well-earned "treat". Such foods, the charity suggests, have simply become part of everyday life.

The whole concept of the treat now seems something of an anachronism in a society in which, some moan, we all expect instant gratification.

And children, it appears, are no exception. There is general consensus that children have more: more toys, more trips - and more tasty titbits.

"Food has become a way for parents to express their love for the child," says paediatric dietician Judy More.

"For those on lower incomes, it's also a very cheap way to do so - a bar of chocolate, a packet of crisps, these don't cost very much. But middle class families equally use low nutrient or less nutritious foods as a means to indulge their kids."

Don't eat that

The diet of the modern child has become a source of much soul-searching, if not, some suggest, moral panic.

Blamed not just for obesity, the sugar, salt and fat our youngsters pack away has been cited as the cause of a whole host of ills from lack of concentration in the classroom to violence on the streets.

THE FOOD COMMISSION RECOMMENDS:
Boys aged 15-18: 107g of fat, 34g of saturated fat, 81g of sugar, 7g of salt
Girls aged 15-18: 82g of fat, 26g of saturated fat, 62g of sugar, 5g of salt
Boys aged 11-14: 86g of fat, 27g of saturated fat, 65g of sugar, 6g of salt
Girls aged 11-14: 72g of fat, 23g of saturated fat, 54g of sugar, 6g of salt

But while food - and the fast variety in particular - may have become a convenient scapegoat for many modern anxieties, it is accepted that the diet of a child growing up in the 1950s was probably superior to that of his modern counterpart.

Despite the post-war shortages they ate more bread and milk, seeing to their fibre and calcium needs, and took in far less refined sugar in the form of soft drinks and sweets.

The most recent survey of the nation's nutrition suggests such sugars constitute 16% of an average's youngsters diet, significantly more than desirable.

Children 60 years ago probably ate in excess of today's recommended daily intake of fruit and vegetables - less than half of children now meet the much touted five portion rule.

The 1950s generation also ate more red meat, which is an important source of iron. Many UK children do not currently meet the recommended daily amount of the mineral, which is essential for growth and development.

But ironically, despite the fact that today's children no longer see crisps as a treat, the older generation probably consumed more fat.

It is here that some of the messages aimed at adult health may get confused with those for children today.

Red meat, cheese and full-fat milk are seen as no-go areas for grown-ups watching their weight, but, as part of a diet also rich in fruit and vegetables, they should feature in what a child consumes, nutritionists say.

Dairy products are rich in calcium, needed for growth and maintenance of bones and teeth.

Playtime

The 1950s child also took more exercise, and the balance between food and energy expenditure is a key one.

But however much a child runs around, if he is stoked up solely on crisps and chocolate his long-term health outlook is unlikely to be rosy. His teeth may not be much to look at either.

We shouldn't overestimate the scale of the problem, but for plenty of kids out there chips and chocolate have become a way of life - and that needs to change
Lisa Miles
British Nutrition Foundation

So what next?

Industry says it is making changes: the fat content of children's favourites like crisps has been reduced, while king size chocolate bars have gone.

But some parents want more government legislation to help them say no to "pester power" in the supermarkets, where chocolate and sweets, they complain, are so often placed right at their offspring's eye-level.

The British Heart Foundation is for instance demanding a full ban on marketing what they describe as "junk food" to children, and wants food companies to stop putting games and competitions on labels and websites.

But such government intervention can lead to accusations of nanny statism, and their impact is not always clear.

"It's too simplistic to blame advertising," says nutrition scientist Lisa Miles at the British Nutrition Foundation.

"There is room for the government to act, but families have a responsibility too. We shouldn't overestimate the scale of the problem, but for plenty of kids out there chips and chocolate have become a way of life - and that needs to change."

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