Sugar And Saturated Fat Intake In Children

Published on 30 July 2009 in Food, health and wellbeing

child on swing


Diet in children is an important determinant of their health. In the light of the current obesity ‘epidemic’ there has been a focus on reducing the intake of foods and drinks high in sugar and saturated fat which are often high in calories so can contribute to the risk of overweight, but are often low in essential nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. 'Non-milk extrinsic sugars’, or NMES, which are found in sugary and fruit drinks, confectionery, biscuits, cakes and desserts, are considered to have more adverse health effects than sugars in milk and whole fruit. Intake of NMES in the whole population is considerably higher than recommended, but there was no reliable information on the diet of children in the whole Scottish population.

Key Points

In children in Scotland in 2006, NMES provided 17.4% food energy, considerably higher than the target of 11% food energy, and was higher in older children and slightly higher in those living in more deprived areas. The major sources of NMES were non-diet soft drinks, confectionery and biscuits, cakes and pastries, which contributed 17%, 12% and 12% of the total NMES intake respectively.

Among the children saturated fat intake provided 13.8% of food energy, a little higher than the target of 11% food energy. There were no differences between older and younger children or between those living in more vs. less deprived areas. The major sources of saturated fat were milk and cream, biscuits, cakes and pastries and crisps and savoury snacks, which contributed 12%, 10% and 8% of saturated fat intake respectively.

14% of the children were overweight and a further 17% were obese. No differences in diet between these children and the non-overweight or obese were detected. There was no clear relationship between being overweight or obese and living in a more deprived area.

Boys spent an average of 2.2 hours a day and girls spent an average of 2.0 hours a day sitting in front of a TV, computer or video screen. Those who spent over 3 hours a day were more likely to be overweight or obese.

56% of all the children had received treatment for dental decay. The proportion was higher in those who lived in more deprived areas and those who had higher NMES intake.

Research Undertaken

Using the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) Child Benefit records a named sample of 2,800 children aged 3-16y on 1st May 2006 was drawn from 80 postcode sectors across Scotland. After exclusions by the DWP and an initial opt-out period, diet questionnaires were sent to 2,498 children. A trained interviewer called at the home to collect the diet questionnaire, to ask other questions e.g. about physical activity and dental health, and to measure the height and weight of the child. 66% of those who received the invitation (1,491 children) completed both the diet questionnaire and home visit. Socio-economic status of the family was derived from postcode.

The NMES and saturated fat intake were estimated from national food composition tables and expressed as a percentage of total energy from food and drink (excluding alcohol). Intake of vitamins and minerals was not estimated as the diet questionnaire was not well suited to this purpose. Overweight and obesity were defined as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) at or above the 85th centile (overweight) or the 95th centile (obese) for children of the same sex and age in UK standard growth charts.

Results were weighted for sampling and non-response bias so that the overall values would be the best estimate possible of the values for all children in Scotland.

The field work of the survey was led by the Scottish Centre for Social Research (Scotcen) with the dietary and statistical analysis carried out by the University of Aberdeen Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health and Institute of Applied Health Sciences, in collaboration with King’s College London, and was funded by the Food Standards Agency Scotland.  A PDF of the full report is available here.

Policy Implications

To improve the diet of Scottish children it will be important to reduce consumption of NMES and saturated fats, which will involve reducing intake of non-diet soft drinks, biscuits, cakes and pastries, confectionery and crisps and savoury snacks. However, these changes alone would not bring the diet of children in line with the dietary targets: some increase in foods high in complex carbohydrate, such as wholegrain bread and other cereals, potatoes and pasta, without an increase in NMES and saturated fat will also be needed to help children achieve a healthy balanced diet. Measures to bring about these changes should be directed to all children.


Dr. Geraldine McNeill


Food, health and wellbeing

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