What little girls are made of
It's tough to digest, but sugar, salt and fat feature more highly on the menus of female teenagers than any other sector of the population
Research published in England recently showed that teenage girls were the unhealthiest eaters out of all sectors in the population. They are not eating enough and when they do eat, the food they consume is high in sugar, salt and fat.
Chocolate, processed food and confectionery were high up on the list. They consumed very few of the important nutrients that are essential in their diet.
The most recent study on our young people's eating habits was the Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children, which was published last November. This report is based on research carried out in 2006, and compares health behaviour in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
Needless to say, unhealthy eating habits were similar between English and Irish teenage girls. However, a significantly higher percentage of Irish girls ate sweets on a daily basis. Ireland also had a higher daily soft-drink consumption in this age group.
What happened to the five portions of fruit and vegetables a day? Less than half of girls between the ages of 11 and 15 reported daily fruit and vegetable consumption in both Ireland and England, and Irish girls ate significantly less fruit than their English counterparts.
"Teenage years are such a vital time for nutrition," says Aveen Bannon, consultant dietitian and owner of the Dublin Nutrition Centre. "Ninety per cent of bone formation is made by 17/18 years of age. Bones are live tissue. Teenage girls need a good daily intake of calcium and vitamin D. They have a limited intake of these as many of them are skipping breakfast. This can be because they say they're in a rush, or they're trying to lose a little weight. Some stop eating dairy because they believe it's fattening.
"Our bodies require food to help them to run properly," she claims. "We need to find out reasons why they're not eating. Tell them the impact on their future health. Their exams will be affected by diet."
Marguerite O'Donnell is Community Dietitian Manager with the HSE West.
"Healthy eating starts during pregnancy, then breast-feeding your baby, and caring for their nutrition as toddlers and in pre-school," she says. "Recent research showed that 27pc of senior infants in Ireland are overweight or obese -- 30pc of girls and 25pc of boys. It's nearly too late by the time they get to be teenagers," says Marguerite. "The community in general doesn't see being overweight as a problem," she claims. "We have become so used to it."
As a community dietitian, Marguerite has seen an increase in referrals for obesity in teenage girls. "There is a link between the parents' weight and the child's weight," she says. "We have to take a family approach when dealing with overweight teenagers," Marguerite says.
Dr Colette Kelly, of the Health Promotion Research Centre in NUI Galway, agrees that healthy eating should start at home.
"Leading by example is really important. Trying to foster a positive approach to food, eating and what it can represent for a family also helps. When introducing new foods, it's important not to give up if it is refused the first or second time.
"Foods that are habitually eaten by other members of the family will become the norm for the more fussy eater," she says.
"Teenage girls, in particular, are not getting enough iron, folate, calcium and vitamin D. Iron is lost through menstruation, so obtaining more from the diet is really important for girls. Iron is important for concentration and fighting infection," she says. "Teenagers are influenced by many factors," according to Dr Kelly. "Their parents still provide most of their food, but they have much more independence in terms of where they eat and with whom.
"Still, what happens in the home and what is provided is essential for a healthy diet for teenagers. The food families purchase, how it is cooked, where it is eaten and with whom are important factors in developing healthy attitudes to get teenagers involved with food, from buying, cooking and eating together as a family when possible," she says.
Fiona Doherty is a home economics teacher and a trained dietary therapist. She is also the mother of five girls ranging in age from 22 down to four. Fiona and her husband, Joe Smith, feel that making healthy eating choices is fundamental to their lives.
"I'd be very conscious of encouraging the children to make healthy eating choices from a young age. I think setting an example as parents is really important, and encouraging the girls to be involved in cooking and preparing meals.
"Caoimhe is 19 now and was a really fussy eater when she was younger. I made a separate list of the foods that she would eat, as opposed to making a big issue of it. She's a really healthy eater now. I'd be very aware about enforcing rigid eating plans. We all have different tastes. Caoimhe was acknowledged as having an individual palate. I allowed her to eat spaghetti bolognese regularly, but I put vegetables into it. She also ate lots of cereal, but they were low-sugar cereals.
"Because the food around her was healthy, she still had to eat healthily. I don't buy white bread or white pasta. I never buy biscuits, cakes, sweets or fizzy drinks. I don't buy processed food. We do a lot of baking," says Fiona.
"The girls' primary school really encourages healthily eating. As a result, when the older two girls went to secondary school, they were more aware of healthy eating and had established good eating habits."
Initially the girls didn't want to bring in a packed lunch. They wanted to be able to eat in the canteen like everyone else.
"There is a whole social thing around queuing up in the canteen with their friends. We compromised to three days a week in the canteen.
"Caoimhe became vegetarian when she was in secondary school. She is image conscious and weight conscious, but she eats healthily," Fiona says.
While 17pc of teenage girls are overweight or obese, a concern of equal importance is eating disorders. Ruth Ní Eidhin is communications officer with Bodywhys, the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland. In 2007 the Health Research Board study of child and adolescent in-patient treatment found eating disorders were the second largest diagnostic category, at 15pc. The following year, that went up to 18pc.
"Unfortunately eating disorders were not separated out as a category for analysis before that point so historical trending is difficult," says Ruth. "However, a similar study in the UK found that the number of girls aged under 16 being treated for eating disorders has gone up 80pc in the last 10 years."
Last year a survey of Irish secondary school students showed that body image is a huge challenge for young people. Bodywhys is seeking to address this issue by launching a campaign aimed at empowering young people to promote their own ideas and challenge the unrealistic ideals pushed on them.
"The 'Be Body Positive' campaign is very much about supporting young people and about celebrating the diversity of their personalities and experiences," says Ruth.
Dr Michelle Share is a senior researcher with the Children's Research Centre, Trinity College Dublin. "Young people are fairly knowledgeable about what constitutes healthy eating," she says, "and to a large extent have switched off from the adult mantra of 'you should eat this and not eat that'. So-called healthier food advertising, such as yogurts or whole-grain products, feature people that are 'old' and 'not like them'.
"These situations can generate acts of resistance by young people to healthy eating measures, but it can be seen as an opportunity to engage openly, in a way that allows for critical thinking and debate."
According to Dr Share, teenage girls are well aware that they are targeted by junk-food advertising and are critical of the contradictory messages in women's magazines in relation to diet and food.
"To some extent they feel powerless in the face of competing discourses about nutrition," she says. "In some schools there may be a mismatch between what is taught in the curriculum about healthy eating and what happens in practice in terms of school food provision (in canteens, tuckshops or vending machines)," she says.
According to Dr Share, possible future consequences such as cancer, obesity and heart disease are not so relevant to many young people who are only concerned with the 'here and now'.