Young people connecting healthy eating to dieting

New all island research reveals insights into adolescents understanding of health lifestyle

27 October, 2005. Young people the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are equating healthy eating with dieting and weight loss. Foods are being classified as simply ‘good’ and ‘bad’, indicating little understanding of the need for a lifestyle where moderation and exercise are also important, according to new research funded by safefood, the Food Safety Promotion Board.

The research also reveals that while today’s young people are well informed about the long term dangers of a junk food diet, they prefer chips, chocolate and crisps as their favourite foods.

In addition, the older generation has been found to be more confident about their food safety knowledge than they should be. Female homemakers, aged over 45, who would have studied home economics at school, were actually found to be less well informed about best practice in the home than other sections of society, confirming the need to keep messages about food safety and hygiene contemporary and relevant.

These are among the findings being presented today at ‘New Insights’, a one day conference organized by safefood.

The conference brings together food safety experts from across Ireland and the UK to look at how public education and communications activity can be best used to help consumers translate their knowledge about food safety and nutrition issues into meaningful lifestyle choices.

Delegates will hear the results of two major pieces of research, funded by safefood.

‘Young People and Food: Adolescents’ Dietary Beliefs and Understandings’, carried out by a project team led by Dr Karen Trew, Queen’s University Belfast, provides fresh insight into the dichotomy between young people’s knowledge of food safety and nutrition and their behaviour.

‘Novel Strategies for Food Risk Communication’, conducted by a team led by Dr Mary McCarthy, University College Cork, provides evidence that while many consumers know the ‘good’ practices in food hygiene, every day practice varies considerably.

Martin Higgins, Chief Executive, safefood explains the importance of both the research findings and today’s seminar: “We all live in an increasingly information rich age and while many more people possess at least the basic knowledge about food safety and the dangers of a diet high in fat and salt, the reasons why our lifestyle choices don’t reflect this are complex and varied.

“The research being presented at this seminar will help us understand some of the factors underlying this gap between knowledge and lifestyle choices with a view to facilitating the development of best practice models for public education and interventions which really affect consumers’ behaviour.”


To request an interview or for further information, please contact

Sharon Murphy  
01 6690030    
087 6081316

Fiona Gilligan
003531 448 0600

‘Young People and Food: Adolescents’ Dietary Beliefs and Understandings’ study is available online at

Interesting findings

Adolescent Eating Patterns in Ireland

Many young people in the island of Ireland are not eating the recommended level of fruit and vegetables. Less than half of all girls in the 12-14 year category reported that they ate fruit and vegetables at least once a day and fruit was even less popular among the 15-17 year olds.

Awareness of expert opinion

Boys and girls in all years seemed to understand the concept of ‘healthy eating’ as recommended by nutritional experts. 
However, despite a good knowledge of healthy foods, healthy eating and the risks of unhealthy eating, most young people claim to practice unhealthy habits. In fact, many suggested that if they, rather than their parents, were in control of the shopping/meal preparation, that their diet would be less healthy.

Adolescents’ own food choice motivations

“Junk” food was described as tasty, whilst vegetables were consistently described as having no taste at all by all groups.

Diet and dieting

Reasons for dieting included being overweight, health reasons, improving your appearance, low self esteem and peer pressure. Some boys readily admitted to teasing girls about their weight, an issue girls described as being particularly sensitive about. While adolescents paid lip-service to the concept of a ‘balanced diet, they clearly lacked an understanding of the ability to include all types of foodstuffs as part of a healthy balance. Some adolescents even talked about of ‘compensating’ for the consumption of energy dense foods by then eating additional nutritious foods rather than regulating their calorie intake over the longer timeframe.

Food Frequency Questionnaire

respondents were asked to rate the frequency of their consumption of a range of foodstuffs, including energy dense foods as well as nutritionally rich items. This was taken from the World Health Organisation’s ‘Health Behaviour among School-aged Children’ surveys. Increased consumption of crisps, chips, sausages/pies/burgers, sweets/chocolate and sugared fizzy drinks were linked together and in turn, were associated with the lower consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables.

The food frequency question was: ‘How often do you eat or drink each of the following foods? (scaled 1-5 from ‘never’ to ‘more then once a day’)

  • 73.7% of respondents said that they ate sweets and chocolate once a day, or more than once a day
  • 60.4% said they ate cooked vegetables once a day, or more than one a day
  • 57% said they ate fresh fruit once a day, or more than one a day
  • 56.4% said they consumed sugary fizzy drinks once a day, or more than one a day
  • 40.9% said they hardly ever or never ate raw vegetables and salad

Gender Differences

Boys were on average less knowledgeable about nutrition than girls.