Adults eat around twice the amount of fruit and vegetables and less fat and sugar than they did as children, a new study suggests.
Contrary to popular opinion, nutritionists at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne found that most people's diets get healthier from childhood to young adulthood.
However, the research team, who were funded by the Wellcome Trust and who have published their results in the academic journal, Appetite*, also discovered that many people perceive barriers to healthy eating.
People who took part in the study said parents, partners and children influenced their diet, together with their amount of free time and work patterns. These factors can exert either a positive or a negative effect. For example, people who saw their parents' influence as positive consumed more fruit and vegetables as adolescents. And whereas a third of people, mainly men, felt their partners had a positive influence on their diet, ten per cent, mainly women, indicated their partners' influence was negative.
A third of participants blamed a busy lifestyle as a reason for not being able to prepare 'healthy meals', often because they believed fruit and vegetables needed time for preparation and cooking. These people were more likely to have smaller intakes in fruit and vegetables over the 20 years than those who did not say a lack of time had influenced their diet. However, it was perceived lack of time, rather than actual free time, that influenced people's food choices.
For the study, the Newcastle University research team examined the food consumption of 200 schoolchildren aged 11-12 years old and revisited the same people 20 years later in their early thirties. On both occasions, participants kept detailed food diaries and were also questioned about their diets and the perceived influences on food intake. Researchers then analysed the two sets of results.
The lead author of the study, Amelia Lake, a registered dietician and Newcastle University researcher, said the findings suggested that although general healthy eating messages were getting through to most people, they also needed to be more carefully targeted to reach individuals who believe their lifestyle still prevents them from eating well.
Schemes such as the Government's 'Five a Day' project, which recommends that each person eats five portions of fruit or vegetables per day, need to be combined with advice specifically tailored to individuals, perhaps in consultations with doctors and nurses.
However, Miss Lake, a researcher with Newcastle University's Human Nutrition Research Centre, said the reasons for dietary patterns and change were complex: "A lot depends on people's individual coping mechanisms and attitude to life. A lack of time is not necessarily the reason for people not attempting to eat healthily. Some working adults are inspired to make a healthy meal in the evenings, while somebody with the same amount of time on their hands would feel under pressure and be inclined to send out for a takeaway.
"These results suggest that the diet is really up to the individual and their personality, and that general health messages are not necessarily enough when a variety of factors are working to prevent people from eating healthily.
Miss Lake added: "Diet needs to be taken more seriously. Home has a major impact on what children and adults eat, schools and workplaces and health care professionals have a role to play.
"Work from this study has shown that children who were high fruit and vegetable consumers maintain this intake into their early thirties. This reaffirms the importance of the National Fruit in Schools Scheme, where children are being encouraged to eat fruit.
"We also need to examine the availability of healthy food in venues such the workplace and in shops. Despite all the healthy eating messages that abound, it's still easier to go to a local shop and buy a chocolate bar rather than a piece of fruit."
* Longitudinal dietary change from adolescence to adulthood: perceptions, attributions and evidence. AA Lake et al, Appetite 42(2004) pp 255-263.
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