School and shop-bought lunches make our teenagers fat
Two in five teens are eating junk food at school
Two in five teenagers are eating junk food at school, fuelling the growing national obesity problem.
While 61pc of those aged 15-17 bring in a home-made lunch, the rest rely on what is sold in school, the local shop or a fast-food outlet.
But shop or school-bought lunches contain much higher levels of calories, sugars and fat, according to new research from Dublin City University (DCU).
Typically, school or shop-bought fare is low in nutrients, featuring processed foods such as sausages or breaded chicken rolls, chips and high-calorie soft drinks. In contrast, home-made lunches are more likely to contain wholemeal breads, cheeses, red meat and fruit, the DCU study shows.
Shop-bought lunches, eaten by 24pc of teens, are worst of all with an average 627 calories - compared with 489 calories for school lunches and 399 calories for a homemade lunch.
The findings of the research, carried out under Dr Mary Rose Sweeney at DCU's School of Nursing and Human Sciences, are published in the 'Journal of Public Health Nutrition'.
Many schools rely on private catering companies and vending machines to provide lunches and snacks, and while there are healthy-eating policies from Government departments and agencies, schools have free rein.
Dr Sweeney, a senior lecturer, said it was time that the Department of Education imposed mandatory rules about the foods schools sell to their pupils and that schools also needed to take responsibility.
"The very clear message from this research is that schools could do much better in terms of improving the nutrient profile of food served, with a consequent positive impact on students' health," she said.
She also said the Department of Education, principals and parents should bring pressure to bear on private companies who have set up kitchens in schools "to ensure that their profit margins are not prioritised over children's health".
Dr Sweeney told the Irish Independent that one private caterer said that it needed to make its profits on chocolate chip cookies sold in the morning break.
The research team analysed 615 lunches across five second-level schools, both urban and rural, single sex and co-educational, and surveyed 305 teenagers. None of the schools was in an area of social disadvantage.
DCU's Sarah Browne, a dietitian involved in the research, said there were two major concerns when teenagers were exposed to and ate high-calorie, fat and sugary foods regularly at school, explaining: "We know these contribute to obesity, and it also means that healthier options are not eaten as much."
She said that while the study showed, for the most part, home lunches were preferable, even they needed attention in terms of fibre, vitamins and minerals.
Research has shown that over 75pc of schools are within a 1km radius of six shops and four fast-food outlets on average, and schools find themselves competing with these.
Ms Browne said that food outlets close to schools had a negative impact on teenagers' food choices, and school canteens and shops tended to mirror their deli-style, high-fat, high-calorie offerings. "We don't see a lot of soup sold in schools," she said.
Apart from the ingredients, Ms Browne said that another factor in shop-bought lunches was that portions were bigger.
One issue regularly highlighted by Irish schools is a lack of adequate kitchens to provide a range of food with fresh ingredients. Schools also say they rely on vending machines to supplement their income.
Professor Anthony Staines, a co-investigator in the research, said Ireland had a problem with obese and overweight children and this research showed how effective food marketing was.
Prof Staines said the work also supported the 'No-Fry Zone' campaign, to stop fast food outlets opening near schools. One in four Irish children are overweight or obese and the World Health Organisation recently predicted Ireland was on course to be the fattest country in Europe by 2030.
One-fifth of the energy intake from a child's diet today comes from sugary drinks, biscuits, confectionery, chocolate and cake.