Children's diet crisis

There is a crisis in children's diets. Children are consuming too little fruit and vegetables, and too much of foods high in fat, salt and sugar. 

British children now consume 25 times more confectionery and 30 times more soft drinks than they did in 1950.  (Joanna Blythman (2006) Bad Food Britain.  How a nation ruined its appetite) 

This is contributing to rising childhood obesity, which in turn increases the risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes in later life. Poor diet can also children's behaviour and ability to learn. In response to the children's diet crisis, the Children's Food Campaign is calling for measures to protect children from junk food marketing, and improve school food and food education.


What's the problem?

It is no exaggeration to say there is a crisis in children's diets. The National Diet and Nutrition Survey found that:

  • 92% of children consume more saturated fat than is recommended
  • 86% consume too much sugar
  • 72% consume too much salt
  • 96% do not get enough fruit and vegetables.

The Chief Medical Officer has compared the crisis in children's diets to a health 'time bomb' which must be defused.

Children's dietary health, in particular childhood obesity, is widely recognised as one of our most pressing public health problems.  The recent Foresight Report on Obesity makes grave predictions for the future state of the nation's health unless we act now. Without action, 55% of boys, and 70% of girls, could be overweight or obese by 2050 and obesity will cost the country £45 billion a year.

One in eveny four Britiash households no longer has a table that everyone can eat around.  (Joanna Blythman (2006) Bad Food Britain.  How a nation ruined its appetite)

Why is this important?

The children's diet crisis leads to serious health and well-being problems.   Lord Krebs, former Chair of the Food Standards Agency (FSA), for example, has warned that for the first time in more than a century life expectancy may fall, with the real prospect that parents may outlive their children. 

The most high-profile health issue is the dramatic rise in childhood obesity.  The UK now has the highest rate of obesity in Europe, and childhood obesity is rising at an alarming rate: one in three children is now overweight or obese.  Obesity in children under 11 has risen by over 40% in ten years.  If this trend continues, half of children will be obese or overweight by 2020.

A survey  of 141 children's meals served in cafes and restaurants in London found that every one failed to meet even the basic nutritional standards set down for school meals.  (Caroline Walker Trust (2005)

The consequences of childhood obesity are now clear: incidences of high blood pressure, raised cholesterol and even clogged arteries in children are rising.  Obesity in childhood is likely to develop into obesity in adulthood, increasing the risk of heart disease, diabetes or cancer in later life.

The psychological impact of obesity can be as damaging as the physical for many children.  Being overweight or obese is associated with increased levels of distress, disadvantage, and psychological problems. 

Alongside the problems associated with obesity, junk food diets are causing other health problems.  For example, type 2 diabetes – once known as “late onset” and traditionally found in the over 40s – is increasingly found in adolescents. 

Junk food diets also have significant effects on children's behaviour, concentration, learning ability and mood.  Children with diets lacking in essential vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids tend to perform worse academically, cannot concentrate and are more aggressive.

By the age of seven, children are eating a average of half a kilo of sugary foods a day.  (Felicity Lawrence (2008) Eat your heart out.  Why the food business is bad for the planet and your health)

What's the solution?

The Children's Food Campaign believes that number of changes are necessary to help solve the children's diet crisis.  These include:

  • Protecting children from junk food marketing
  • Improving school food, and introducing free school meals for all
  • Ensuring children receive real food education
  • Providing clear food labelling that everyone, including children, can understand

For more about each of these changes, see our “Explore the issues” pages.

By the age of 15, boys are consuming 40kg of sugar a year: an equivalent of 11,800 sugar cubes or 1000 cans of cola.  (Felicity Lawrence (2008) Eat your heart out.  Why the food business is bad for the planet and your health)

Progress so far

In recent years, thanks to campaigning by organisations such as the Children's Food Campaign and its supporters, there has been considerable improvement to some aspects of children's food.  We have among the toughest rules in the world on advertising food to children, meaning that junk food advertising is no longer permitted during children's TV programming.  Nutritional standards have been introduced to ensure that school meals are healthy, and junk food removed from vending machines and tuck shops, with the School Food Trust set up by the Government with a remit to transform school food and food skills.  From 2011, practical cooking lessons will be compulsory for all 11-14 year olds, and traffic light labelling is widely used, with many of the main supermarket chains adopting the scheme for their products.

However, there's still a way to go.  Children are still exposed to high levels of junk food advertising, both through media other than television, and through TV advertising around so-called “adult” programming, including programmes such as Coronation Street and The Simpsons.  While school food has improved, the lunchtime environment hasn't, meaning that many pupils don't take advantage of the healthy school meals on offer because of cramped canteens, long queues or food running out.  While children will be taught cooking skills at school, many will miss out on learning wider food skills, such as food growing.  And most food manufacturers still refuse to adopt traffic light labelling.

Obesity has grown 300% over the last 20 years.  (Joanna Blythman (2006) Bad Food Britain.  How a nation ruined its appetite)

What can I do?

Explore the problems and solutions in our “Explore the issues” pages.

Sign up as a supporter the Children's Food Campaign to receive regular campaign updates by email, and notification of actions you can take to address the problems.

Currently a third of the total number of obese children in Europe are British (Joanna Blythman (2006) Bad Food Britain.  How a nation ruined its appetite)

Frequently Asked Questions

Don't children just need to do more exercise?
There is no doubt that obesity develops when people consume more energy (calories) than they use up in everyday life. Clearly therefore both diet and physical activity are important in determining a person's weight.

Food industry representatives routinely link the obesity crisis to sedentary lifestyles and insufficient physical activity, whilst placing much less emphasis on the foods consumed by children[1].  It is disingenuous of the food and advertising industries to imply that the types of food eaten by people have little impact upon weight gain. Indeed, the impact of an unhealthy food environment on people's choices is acknowledged by the House of Commons Health Committee's Obesity report: "It is clear that people are overeating in relation to their energy needs, and that the cheapness, availability and heavy marketing of energy-dense foods makes this very easy to do."[2]

While it is true that regular physical activity is vital for good health, increased physical activity does not make an unhealthy diet any less unhealthy.  Even if children are a healthy weight, saturated fat still causes premature hardening of the arteries, frequent sugar consumption causes dental decay and salt intake increases the risk of stroke in later life, no matter how active they are.

Can't all foods be healthy if they're part of a balanced diet?
The food and advertising industries continue to argue that all foods can be part of a healthy diet. For example, the Food and Drink Federation (the food industry trade body) notes, "Foods high in fat, salt and/or sugar are not harmful per se. Fat, salt and carbohydrates are essential macronutrients. It is the balance of them that is important. All foods can fit into a balanced diet, which involves appropriate intake of all nutrients over a period of days."[3]

This is tantamount to saying that all foods, however bad their nutritional quality, can fit into a balanced diet, provided that you hardly ever eat them. Unfortunately, children eat large amounts of junk food all too frequently.

Moreover, the case for "balance" is spurious. If people eat a diet of healthy foods - a wide range of fruit and vegetables, plenty of a variety of whole grain cereals, pulses, nuts and seeds, and (if they are not vegetarian or vegan) small amounts of fish, dairy products and meat - there is no need to "balance" this with junk food. If, however, children are eating unhealthy foods - and all the evidence shows that they are - then what "balancing" their diet means is eating less of them, and more healthy food. Yet the foods children should eat more of receive little or no promotion.

Isn't ensuring a healthy diet parents' responsibility?
Everyone agrees that parents take the main responsibility for bringing up their children, including making sure they eat a healthy diet. However, responsibility is not a finite commodity; there is plenty to go round. Parents do have responsibility for their children, but so do others in society. The food and advertising industries, for example, have a responsibility to ensure that they do not make a difficult job – bringing up children in the modern world - even harder. In fact, research commissioned by Ofcom notes that parents feel less than effective in tackling the commercial influences that encourage their children to eat junk food.[4]

Government also has a responsibility to help parents fulfil their responsibilities. Nannies, of course, provide exactly that service - helping parents to bring up children and protect them from harm. So the "nanny" state is entirely appropriate in this instance. Government should introduce legal protection for children from junk food marketing so that parents can be supported - free from undue commercial interference - in their efforts to encourage children to eat a healthy diet.

By 2050, obesity will cost the country £45 billion a year (Foresight Report (2007) Tackling Obesity: Future Choices)

More information

The following organisations and websites provide more information about this issue.

Research and statistics
Foresight (2007) Tackling Obesity: Future Choices
House of Commons Health Committee (2004) Obesity
Ofcom (2004) Commentary on research evidence regarding the effects of food promotion to children
Department of Health (2002) Annual Report of the Chief Medical Officer
National Statistics (2000) National Diet and Nutrition Survey: young people aged 4 to 18 years

Department of Health/Department for Children Schools and Families (2009) Healthy lives, brighter futures – the strategy for children and young people's health
Cabinet Office (2008) Food Matters: Towards a strategy for the 21st century
Department of Health (2008)  Healthy weight, healthy lives - A Cross Government Strategy for England

British Heart Foundation
National Heart Forum
Cancer Research UK
Diabetes UK
National Obesity Forum

Without action, 55% of boys, and 70% of girls, could be overweight or obese by 2050 (Foresight Report (2007) Tackling Obesity: Future Choices)]

1. For example, in Carlisle D., (2002), Do children need a commercial break?, Health Development Today, 7 March 2002.

2. House of Commons Health Committee, (2004), Obesity - Third Report of Session 2003-04, TSO, London, Para 68.

3. Food and Drink Federation Response to the Department of Health's Choosing Health Consultation, 9 June 2004.

4. Livingstone S., (2004), Commentary on research evidence regarding the effects of food promotion to children, Ofcom.

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Children's Food Campaign

Better food and food teaching for children in schools, and protection of children from junk food marketing are the aims of Sustain's high-profile Children's Food Campaign. We also want clear food labelling that can be understood by everyone, including children.

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