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Presented at the ABAI International Conference in Kyoto, Japan, in September 2015

Shall I have an apple, or cake, or both? Measuring the changes in the nutritional composition of children's meals after Food Dudes.

Eating more fruit and veg displaces foods high in fat, sugar and salt in children’s diets

We have developed a digital-photography based method of recording eating in schools to investigate the extent to which increasing intake of fruit and veg changes the nutritional composition of children’s meals.

When we work with caterers and parents to establish healthier meals for children, they often tell us they feel unsure about the full nutritional effects of changing children’s diets. Getting more vitamin C is a good thing, but might there be less desirable effects of replacing the nutritionally dense desserts with fruit? After all, caterers tell us, chocolate sponge with custard will provide the recommended daily calcium and magnesium.

Overall, even though research shows that diets rich in fruit and veg tend to be, on the whole, better balanced and rich in micronutrients and fibre, it is not known how changing the children’s eating habits may be affecting their daily nutrition. If they eat more veg, will they consume less starch or protein? If they eat sweet fruit instead of cake, will their sugar intake stay the same? We have received Knowledge Economy Skills Scholarship (KESS) funding to find out.

We first piloted the measures in a primary school in Llandudno, establishing a precise coding system where digital photographs of children’s lunches are taken before and after eating. This allows us to calculate their consumption to the nearest 10% of each serving with excellent accuracy (inter-observer agreement > 90%). These records can then be used to calculate exact content of macro- and micro-nutrients in each meal.

We have recruited a pair of schools in Leeds, one taking part in the Food Dudes programme and another a matched control, and have examined the changes in meals eaten by children at baseline and again three months later. We found that children’s fruit and veg consumption increased in the Food Dudes school but not in the control school. The extra fruit and veg displaced foods high in fat, salt and sugar. At the follow up, children in the intervention school ate significantly fewer calories, fats, saturated fats, and sugar than at baseline. Next, we plan to examine how micronutrient content of children’s meals had changed.

This research had been supported by a Knowledge Economy Skills Scholarship (KESS) funding for a Masters by Research to Mariel Marcano-Oliver, working with Dr Erjavec and Prof Horne. We also thank the schools who took part; Food Dudes Health Ltd; and the School of Psychology, Bangor University, for their contributions.