Children who were four in 1950 had a more balanced diet than four year olds today, despite living in a poorer society with a more limited range of food. The post-war austerity and food rationing of the early Fifties created a more conducive climate for a balanced and healthy diet, say scientists funded by the Medical Research Council.
In a comparison of the typical diets of two groups of four-year-olds, the MRC scientists concluded that what children ate in the Fifties was closer to the present-day recommendations for a healthy diet. Professor Michael Wadsworth, who leads the National Survey of Health and Development at University College London, says the study provides unambiguous evidence for a general decline in children's nutrition, despite increasing wealth: "In 1950 the average diet was still influenced by post-war austerity but this study shows that the food and nutrient intake of young children at that time was better than today.
"It seems to me that, faced with an amazing amount of choice, a mother today is not as well versed in nutrition as a mother in the Fifties. Education is the key," he said. The scientists, from the MRC's Human Nutrition Research Unit in Cambridge and the Institute for Environmental Health in Leicester, studied diet records of 4,600 children who were four in 1950 and compared their eating habits with children of the same age in another national study in 1992.
One of the main differences to emerge was the heavy reliance on bread, milk and vegetables in 1950, which has largely been replaced by the rise in consumption of pizza, pasta, rice and yoghurts in the Nineties. "The higher amounts of bread, milk and vegetables consumed in 1950 are closer to the healthy eating guidelines of the Nineties," Professor Wadsworth said. "The children's higher calcium intake could have potential benefits for their bone health in later life, while their vegetable consumption may protect them against heart and respiratory disease and some forms of cancer," he said.
Children in 1950 ate more potatoes and drank tea with meals whereas those in the Nineties are more likely to consume baked beans, savoury snacks and soft drinks.
Although children ate more animal fat in the Fifties the higher calorie intake was probably offset by being more active than are today's youngsters.
Whereas fresh vegetables were the main source of vitamin C forty years ago, children today get most of their vitamin C from fruit juices - which do not contain the additional nutrients of plant-derived foods.
The study, published in the journal Public Health Nutrition, also found that red meat in the diet has given way to a rise in the consumption of poultry. The scientists believe this has led to a fall in the uptake of iron, a vital element for the transport of oxygen in the blood. "Iron intake in 1992 was only 76 per cent of that in 1950, the decline being exacerbated by the reduced contribution from meat," the scientists report.
An important development has been the switch in the main source of carbohydrates from starch to sugar.
"These shifts in carbohydrate intake are a striking feature of the present study and demonstrate that in early life in 1950, the dietary patterns should have been more beneficial to gastrointestinal health," the scientists say. "The present study demonstrates that the food and nutrient intake of young children at that time in most respects was arguably better than at present," they conclude.
THEN AND AND NOW: TYPICAL MENUS FOR FOUR-YEAR-OLDS
Breakfast: Cereals with milk, egg with bread and butter
Lunch: Lamb chop with potatoes, Brussels sprouts, carrots;
followed by rice pudding and tea.
Tea: Bread and butter, jam, cake and tea.
Supper: Glass of milk
Breakfast: Cereals and milk with fruit juice, or nothing at all
Lunch: Pizza and baked beans, coke and chocolate
Tea: Spaghetti hoops, Sunny Delight, yoghurt
Supper: Juice and biscuits