There are more than 91 million school children worldwide now defined as living with obesity – and the UK is in the top 20 countries for obesity levels.
In the UK, the obesity rate for children doubles during primary school years – and then increases again in secondary school. This is in part because teenagers in the UK consume poor quality diets, low in nutrients and high in processed foods.
Indeed, girls in England do not get essential nutrients required for reproductive and overall good health (vitamin A, folate, iron). And young people are also generally low in at least five micronutrients needed for development, immunity, mood and energy levels.
Research also shows that teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds have lower micronutrient and fibre intake than their more well-off peers. And findings from the Food Foundation think tank show that almost 4 million children in the UK live in households that struggle to afford to buy enough fruit, vegetables, fish and other healthy foods to meet the official nutrition guidelines.
These types of dietary patterns can not only have negative consequences on the physical health of teenagers, but they can also impact their mental health. Research shows malnourished teens are less likely to fulfil their potential at school, and more likely to suffer with poor mental health.
Why the poor choices?
There’s also the wider issue that school food policy has failed to sustain quality nutrition – particularly in secondary schools. Researchers from the Jamie Oliver Foundation were alarmed to find many schools are still serving high fat and sugary foods at break and lunch – including pasties, pizza, doughnuts, muffins and cookies, often in large portion sizes. This is despite Oliver campaigning tirelessly over the last decade to change the nation’s eating habits after Jamie’s School Dinners aired in 2005 to reveal the terrible standards of school food in the UK. Oliver has since said that his push to improve nutrition for children didn’t work because eating well is still seen as a “posh and middle-class” concern.