Why children can teach their parents a lesson in healthy eating

Annual Health Survey for England reveals generation gap in understanding

Children have a better grasp than their parents of key messages affecting their health, research shows. Despite years of Government public health campaigns, there is still widespread misunderstanding about how much it is safe to drink, what constitutes a healthy diet and how much exercise to take.

The annual Health Survey for England, published yesterday, shows more than two-thirds of adults did not know how much exercise they should be doing, less than a third knew the maximum daily amount of alcohol they should drink and fewer than one in six knew what a portion of fruit and vegetables was.

Children are more active than their parents and, like them, most know they should eat five portions of fruit and veg a day. But almost twice as many children as adults knew what a "portion" was: 21 per cent of boys and girls versus 14 per cent of men and 11 per cent of women.

A "portion" is defined as 80 grams, roughly equivalent to a single apple or a banana. Beyond that it gets more complicated: three tablespoons of peas or carrots, half a grapefruit, or a small handful of cherry tomatoes. Potatoes do not count; they are classed as starch. Rachel Craig, research director for the survey, said: "There are indications that children have a better understanding of some of the messages than adults. Younger adults tend to be more aware of the messages than older ones. There is a generational trend there. You see it in attitudes to drinking; older adults are less aware of the daily recommended limits than younger ones."

For the survey, adults and children were asked to say what constituted a single portion from the following list: two tablespoons of carrots, two cherry tomatoes, one apple, one melon, one jacket potato, four grapes. Few identified the apple as the only correct answer, but children outnumbered the adults.

Despite confusion about the messages, the figures suggest people are leading healthier lives by eating more fruit and veg and doing more exercise. Among children, there are signs that the rise in obesity may be flattening out. Since 2004, its prevalence has not increased among boys and has slightly decreased among girls.

Last week, figures from a schools survey suggested obesity levels were rising among children. But Ms Craig said the numbers coming forward to be measured had increased. "It seems that the children who did not want to be measured the first time around were more overweight."

Mark Davies, the medical director of The NHS Information Centre, which published the survey, said: "It is of concern that the messages of safe alcohol intake, appropriate exercise levels and healthy eating do not seem to be getting through to all parts of the population."

Health: The offical guidelines

* On exercise: 30 minutes a day, on at least five days a week, either in one session or through a number of shorter bouts of activity of 10 minutes or longer.

* On alcohol: Daily intake should not regularly exceed three to four units for men and two to three units for women.

* On fruit and vegetable consumption: At least five 80g portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables should be eaten per day. A portion is one apple or banana, half a grapefruit, three tablespoons of peas or carrots.

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