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Children eating less fruit and veg, study shows

The eating habits of Maltese schoolchildren have deteriorated over the last four years, with many boys and girls eating far less fruit and vegetables, a new study has shown.

The number of children aged 11, 13 and 15 who consume fruit every day has dropped nearly eight per cent from 2002, down to 39.2 per cent, according to the preliminary results of the latest Health Behaviour in School-aged Children Study.

Youngsters are also failing to eat their greens - the figure for the daily consumption of vegetables has dipped by 3.7 per cent (to 12.3 per cent) in a matter of four years.

The HBSC, part of the World Health Organisation's collaborative cross-national study, was carried out in April 2006 in 41 countries and the full results will be out at the end of this year.

Marianne Massa, the principal investigator of the study in Malta, described the new figures as alarming.

"We would have at least expected children's consumption of fruit and vegetables to go up or remain stable, not go down," she said when contacted.

Ms Massa said it was hard to pinpoint the exact cause behind this drop, but the country was only now really starting to take the bull by the horns and addressing the social determinants of obesity.

"Health education in schools was poor until a few years ago, which could explain why children's behaviour has not changed for the better," she said.

The last HBSC study, carried out in 2002, had included Church schools. However, last year there was uproar when the Curia had asked Church schools not to distribute the survey to the children because it had disapproved of the "nature of the questions" about sexual relations.

So is it possible to compare the figures of 2002 with those of 2006 and still get a clear picture of schoolchildren's behaviour over these past four years?

Health Promotion Department director Mario Spiteri insisted that the study was still a representative sample and he had been assured by a statistician that they could compare like with like.

He added that a number of schools had actually already submitted the filled-in questionnaires before the Curia's order not to take part had been issued.

The HBSC survey also looks into the consumption of sweets. While the number of 11-year-old boys who ate sweets every day increased by three per cent to 49 per cent, their female counterparts have cut down; 46.8 per cent take sweets daily, down nearly 10 per cent. Encouragingly, girls and boys aged 13 and 15 years have reduced their daily sweet-tooth intake, with the figure down over four per cent.

The average daily consumption of soft drinks remained pretty stable over four years, at 40.9 per cent in 2006 compared to 40.2 per cent in 2002.

Ms Massa said that for the first time, the study also looked into schoolchildren's daily consumption of white bread (33.3 per cent) and brown bread (4.7 per cent).

While over a quarter of schoolchildren (30 per cent) said that they consumed chips two to four times a week, 28.6 per cent said they rarely ate at fast food outlets.

"These figures should serve as an eye-opener and push us to provide our children with healthier choices," Ms Massa said.

Source: Times of Malta

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