UK youngsters still consuming twice as much sugar as they should be

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

UK youngsters still consuming twice as much sugar as they should be

Related tags Soft drinks Nutrition

Young children are drinking more than double the amount of sugar they should be – although consumption of sugary drinks has fallen, according to a UK-wide dietary survey.

Between 2012 and 2014, youngsters aged four to 10 years old drank an average of 100 ml of sugary drinks per day, a decrease from 130 ml per day in the 2008 to 2010 period.   

However, sugar still makes up 13% of children’s daily calorie intake – more than double the official recommendation to limit sugar intake to 5% of daily calorie intake – while teenagers consume three times as much (15%).  

The national diet and nutrition survey (NDNS) also showed that only 8% of young people aged 11 to 18 years old eat the recommended amount of five pieces of fruit and vegetables a day. This increases with age but still falls far short of recommended amounts, with 27% percent of adults and 35% of older adults over 65 eating their 'five-a-day'.

There were also deficiencies in some micronutrients. Around one fifth of adults had low levels of vitamin D while young people aged 11 to 18 years had low levels of vitamin A and iron.  

A copy of the survey in full can be seen here​.

What the nation ate

The NDNS is a continuous, cross-sectional survey which assesses the diet and nutrient intake of around 1000 people (500 adults and 500 children) each year across all regions of the UK (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).

Jointly funded by Public Health England - the body that advises the UK government on public health policy - and the UK Food Standards Agency, data is collected through interviews, diet diaries and blood and urine analyses. 

War of words

Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at PHE, said the advisory body was leading a programme to challenge the food industry to remove at least 20% of the sugar in its products by 2020. “It’s an ambitious programme, a world first, and will be a significant step on the road to reducing child obesity levels.”

But the strategy has been heavily criticised by campaigners who say the measures it envisages are insufficient to address the country’s expanding waistlines and worsening health – for a start, they are voluntary.

But Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University of London and chairman of campaign group Action on Sugar, slammed the government’s childhood obesity strategy as “pathetic​”.

Over one third of children leaving primary school in the UK are now overweight.

child, burger, junk food, childhood obesity, unhealthy  Kenishirotie
© iStock/Kenishirotie

An effective strategy to combat obesity must include a mandatory reformulation programme as well as restrictions on the marketing of, and promotions on, unhealthy foods, MacGregor said. “The failed responsibility deal has already proven that a voluntary system does not work,” ​he added.

But this was disputed by the British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA). Its director general, Gavin Partington, said the group was pleased that, according to the NDNS data, there was a decline in the amount of sugar teenagers consumed from soft drinks between 2012 and 2014.

“Soft drinks companies have taken significant action to help their consumers reduce their sugar intake since the NDNS data was collected over two years ago. Independent analysis confirms that sugar intake from soft drinks has been reduced by over 16% in the last four years.

“However, we understand there is more to do and only last year we set ourselves a 20% calorie reduction target by 2020.”

Meanwhile a spokesperson for the UK’s food industry lobby, the Food and Drink Federation, said the survey offered “a timely reminder” ​of the importance of taking a whole-diet approach to improving the nation’s health.

It has been a vocal opponent of measures to tackle obesity that focus on one nutrient, such as the tax on certain sugary drinks.

“We, on average, need to consume a lot more fruit and vegetables, oily fish and fibre and less saturated fat and sugars. Food and drink producers are taking steps to help customers towards dietary goals, lowering calories from sugars and fats in their products, capping portion sizes, and adding key nutrients such as iron and fibre,”​ the spokesperson added.

PHE added that data pulled from the survey underlined the need for people to follow a healthy, balanced diet based on the national Eatwell guide, which was recently updated​ to give more prominence to plant-based proteins over animal sources.

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