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Sitra’s survey reveals: snacks provide almost half of young people's energy

Finnish 7th-9th graders eat little vegetables, fruit and rye bread but plenty of sugary snacks. School meals do not provide enough energy when too little of it is eaten and bread as well as other side dishes are left uneaten. The National Public Health Institute and the Institute of Dentistry at the University of Oulu surveyed the eating habits, health-related behaviour and oral health of lower secondary school students.

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Finnish 7th-9th graders eat little vegetables, fruit and rye bread but plenty of sugary snacks. School meals do not provide enough energy when too little of it is eaten and bread as well as other side dishes are left uneaten. The selection of unhealthy snacks attracts young people even though the majority feel that they have more energy when their diet is healthier. Parents, teachers and other adults act as their role models.

As part of the Smart Snacks project* of Sitra’s Food and Nutrition Programme ERA, the National Public Health Institute and the Institute of Dentistry at the University of Oulu surveyed the eating habits, health-related behaviour and oral health of lower secondary school students. All in all, 12 schools with a total of approximately 700 students from Tampere, Lahti and Mikkeli participated in the survey. The start-off level survey for 7th graders was performed in the spring 2007. The survey collected information through the means of questionnaires, measurements and nutrition-related interviews. The research was led by Professor Pirjo Pietinen from the National Public Health Institute.

More fruit and vegetables

Only one third of young people said that they ate fresh vegetables, fruit and rye bread daily. There was a great deal to improve in the intake of nutrients as well: the proportion of sugar in the overall energy intake surpassed nutritional recommendations and correspondingly the intake of fibre was clearly below the recommendation. The intake of iron, vitamin D and folate was also insufficient.

Results concerning school lunches showed similar results to other research conducted in Finland. For school lunch, almost all students ate the main course but only one in three had bread and about a half drank milk. Approximately 20% of the daily energy came from the school lunch, when the recommendation is one third.

The quality of snacks and dental hygiene should be improved

Young people received about 40% of their daily energy from snacks. The most common snacks eaten at school were sweets or chocolate, bread, snack bars, fruit, and sugary soft drinks.

Only one fourth of students thought that they could for certain eat healthily if tempting unhealthy alternatives were available. Therefore, the quality of the snacks on offer should be paid more attention to in the future.

According to the start-off level survey, there is a lot to be done in oral hygiene as well. “Proper meals, avoiding sweet snacks, tap water for thirst,” advises Professor Hannu Hausen from the Institute of Dentistry at the University of Oulu. “Teeth should be carefully brushed every morning and night with fluoride toothpaste.”

Adults are responsible for young people’s eating choices

Even lower secondary school students need adults’ support. Parents’ responses to the survey reveal that vegetables are daily available in much less than half the homes and fruit in only 72% of households. “It is difficult for young people to increase their consumption of vegetables and fruit if they are not available at home,” says Professor Pirjo Pietinen from the National Public Health Institute.

About half the teachers ate a school lunch every day, while 14% never ate at the school cafeteria. Only about one third of teachers thought that teachers are important role models when it comes to young people’s eating habits. “It would be good if teachers participated in the school lunches also in the lower secondary schools as an example to the young people,” says Pietinen.

More information about influencing opportunities on the way

After the completion of the start-off level survey, lots were drawn to divide the participating schools into intervention and reference schools. In the intervention schools, measures were undertaken to affect young people’s eating environment and habits. The implementation of the measures was the responsibility of Finnish Bread Information. The effects of the intervention have been studied in the spring 2008 and the results will be published in December 2008. The results of the study can be utilised in developing school meals and health communications aimed at young people.

Further information

Pirjo Pietinen, Professor, National Public Health Institute, +358 9 4744 8596, firstname.lastname@ktl.fi
Hannu Hausen, Professor, University of Oulu, +358 8 537 5582, firstname.lastname@oulu.fi
Sini Garam, Acting President, Finnish Bread Information, +359 9 1488 7502, firstname.lastname@etl.fi
Marjaana Lahti-Koski, Development and Health Promotion Manager for the Finnish Heart Association, +358 9 752 75225, firstname.lastname@sydanliitto.fi
Markku Mikola, Project Manager, Sitra, ERA Programme, +358 9 6189 9235 or +358 40 771 8030, firstname.lastname@sitra.fi

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