Many children feel healthier and are more active since the return to school, research finds

A new survey from the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) analyses how the healthy eating habits and physical activity levels of both children and adults have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, throughout the lockdown and now in the recent period of eased restrictions. The survey, conducted as part of BNF Healthy Eating Week 2020, reveals that 50 percent of primary school children and 26 percent of secondary school students say that they feel better or healthier now that they are back at school, while 27 percent of adults say they feel more healthy since lockdown restrictions were eased (July) compared with during the lockdown that started in March this year.

Over half (56 percent) of primary school children and exactly half (50 percent) of secondary school students surveyed say that they are more active now that they are back at school. Only 11 percent of primary school children and secondary school students say that they are now less active than before they went back to school. However, almost one third (29 percent) of adults state they are less active now than before lockdown started in March.

The survey also indicates the extent to which adults and secondary school children have turned to ‘comfort’ foods and drinks throughout the pandemic. Nearly half (46 percent) of adults and 43 percent of secondary school students say that they have consumed more chocolate when feeling tired, stressed, bored or anxious throughout the COVID-19 outbreak. 41 percent of adults and 35 percent of secondary school students have consumed more cakes or biscuits; 33 percent of adults and 41 percent of secondary school students have eaten more crisps; and 13 percent of adults and 28 percent of secondary school students have drunk more sugary drinks. Well over a third (35 percent) of all adults say that they have consumed more alcohol when feeling tired, stressed, bored or anxious during the pandemic.

In contrast, 37 percent of secondary students and 18 percent of adults report eating more fruit, and 21 percent of secondary students and 12 percent of adults report eating more vegetables when feeling tired, stressed, bored or anxious.

Sara Stanner, Science Director at BNF says: “As we navigate this next stage of the pandemic, we know that being in good health is more important than ever to help us stay well, but making healthy choices isn’t always easy. The unprecedented effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on our lives have challenged all of us so it’s great to see our survey suggest that many children are feeling healthier and are more active now they are getting back to school. However, it’s not surprising that many adults and secondary students have been reaching for less healthy foods when tired, stressed or anxious.

“BNF Healthy Eating Week aims to support children and adults to make more informed choices and to lead healthier lives by increasing knowledge of healthy eating and wellbeing, and the benefits of physical activity and cooking. 4,929 schools and nurseries, and 1,324 workplaces (or workplace teams), colleges and universities across the UK are taking part in BNF Healthy Eating Week 2020 (28 September to 4 October). The week’s activities include seven daily health challenges, which people are encouraged to take part in at school, in the workplace, or at home.”

One of the BNF Healthy Eating Week challenges is to ‘Eat more wholegrains’. The BNF survey suggests that knowledge of what wholegrain foods are among both children and adults is varied. Wholegrain foods such as bran flakes, oats, wholegrain bread and wholemeal pasta were all correctly identified by many, for example, over 40 percent of primary and over 80 percent of secondary school children and adults said that wholemeal bread is a wholegrain food. However, over 30 percent of primary and secondary school children think that basmati rice is a wholegrain food and over 20 percent of adults think that couscous is a wholegrain. Beans, potatoes with skins and dried fruit were also selected by many respondents and, although these provide fibre, they do not count as wholegrain.

BNF Healthy Eating Week also highlights the value of including a variety of different fruits and vegetables in the diet. The new survey explores consumption of fruit and vegetables among the different age groups and finds that children report eating more fruit than adults, while adults report consuming more vegetables. 52 percent of primary school children and 53 percent of secondary school students say they usually eat three or more portions of fruit each day, compared with 44 percent of adults. 53 percent of primary school children and 58 percent of secondary school students report that they eat three or more portions of vegetables each day, compared with 64 percent of adults. One in 10 primary school children and 7 percent of secondary school students say that, if they could, they would eat no vegetables at all, while a fifth (20 percent) of primary school children and 14 percent of secondary school students would choose to only ever eat one type of vegetable.

Primary school children who took part in the survey were asked to name their three favourite vegetables. The clear winner is carrots (68 percent of children), followed by beetroot (36 percent), cauliflower (32 percent) and cucumber (31 percent). Parsnips, swede and pak choi are joint last in the primary school children’s vegetable league table (0.3 percent each).

Secondary school students and adults were asked to select all of the different types of vegetables they have eaten in the last two weeks. For secondary school students, carrots also top the list, included by 84 percent. This is followed by onions, broccoli, cucumber and peas, which are each included by over 60 percent. Tomatoes are the most frequently mentioned vegetable for adults, included by 89 percent of respondents. Carrots, onions and peppers are the next most frequently included, mentioned by over 80 percent of adults. Over 70 percent of adults report eating beans (e.g. baked beans), broccoli, cucumber, lettuce and peas in the previous two weeks. Okra and celeriac are the least consumed vegetables in both age groups.

The BNF survey also asked about the social eating habits of the different age groups within the home and found that half (50 percent) of all primary school children say that they eat with other people at home five or more nights of each week, with 42 percent of these eating with others every night of the week. The number of secondary school students who say they eat with other people in the home, without the distraction of technology (TV, mobile phones, laptops, etc), five or more times a week is 53 percent, 38 percent of those eating together every night of the week. Less than a third (29 percent) of adults say that they eat with other family members, without distractions, every night of the week and 42 percent say they eat with others at home five or more nights each week.

Stanner concluded: “From our survey, while it’s good to see that many adults and children report eating with others at home regularly, about 20 percent of all groups we surveyed say they never eat with others at home without the distraction of TV, phones or other technologies. One of the BNF Healthy Eating Week challenges is to eat together and this is something that can help build healthy eating habits for children, as well as providing an ideal opportunity to chat and catch up without other distractions. Our other weekend challenge is to get active together and we asked secondary students and adults whether exercising with other helps motivate them to be active – 68 percent of adults and 73 percent of secondary students agreed. So, getting active with others, bearing in mind current measures to control the spread of COVID-19, could be a great way for many to get moving.”

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