Portuguese children and adolescents who belong to a higher socioeconomic level, and in particular who have more educated parents, follow a healthier eating pattern and eat more healthy food. Even so, these adolescents consume large amounts of salty snacks, which shows that the socioeconomic context and the education of parents do not protect children from less healthy eating habits at these ages, concluded a study by the Instituto de Saúde Pública da Universidade do Porto (ISPUP).
According to Sofia Vilela, first author of the study, coordinated by Carla Lopes, the research “aimed to verify whether there is a link between the socioeconomic status of Portuguese children and adolescents and the daily intake of foods considered healthier, such as vegetables, white meat, fish and eggs, and less healthy foods, with high energy density, such as sugary drinks and salty snacks”.
“To date, no study at the national level has explored this relationship, so it seemed pertinent to carry out the investigation”, adds the researcher.
The researchers assessed the eating habits, as well as the weight and height, of 1153 children and adolescents, aged between 3 and 17 years old, who participated in the National Food, Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey (IAN-AF) 2015 -2016.
The socioeconomic status of the children and adolescents was characterized based on the parents’ education level, the employment status (employed or unemployed), the number of household members and the geographical area where they live (rural, urban or predominantly urban).
The importance of parents’ education
Among the variables considered to characterize socioeconomic status, particular importance was given to parents’ education, namely mothers’ education, since “through education we are able to have an idea of the knowledge that parents pass on to their children. There are international studies that show that, at pediatric ages, the higher the parents’ educational level, the greater the likelihood that they will promote adequate eating practices among their children”, notes the researcher.
The study showed that children and adolescents who have a higher socioeconomic status (the household lives in urban areas and is smaller, and parents are more educated and employed) consume greater amounts of fruit and vegetables, white meat, fish and eggs.
“We also noticed that more educated parents influence children, encouraging them to consume less red and processed meat, but they are unable to exert the same influence on adolescents, which shows that parents lose control over their children’s diet, when they enter adolescence, failing to prevent them from eating less healthy foods”, states the researcher.
The particular case of adolescents
According to Sofia Vilela, “in Portugal, adolescents’ eating habits and meal patterns tend to be less healthy. It is a population with a high inadequacy of consumption of fruit and vegetables, and a high consumption of sugary drinks, fast food and salty snacks. Adolescents are more exposed to influences from outside the family context, which have an impact on the food they eat”.
“However, we realize that teenagers from a higher socioeconomic level and with more educated parents, eat healthier, ingesting greater amounts of healthy food, such as fruit and vegetables. Even so, they consume high amounts of salty snacks, such as packaged potato chips, which demonstrates that the socioeconomic context and the education of parents do not function as a protective factor for less healthy eating habits at these ages”, she adds.
The research, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, demonstrates that the socioeconomic position, along with parents´ education, plays an important role in the eating habits of Portuguese children and adolescents. However, the study observed that food consumption among adolescents is influenced by various factors, which escape the family context, such as peer influence, the availability of food outside the home and advertising, which may help to shape their food choices at this stage of life.
The authors emphasize that future public health interventions aimed at this population must take these particularities into account.
The study entitled The role of socioeconomic factors in food consumption of Portuguese children and adolescents: results from the National Food, Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey 2015-2016 was developed within the scope of the Epidemiology Research Unit (EPIUnit) of ISPUP and the National Food, Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey (IAN-AF) 2015 -2016. The researchers Iasmina Muresan, Daniela Correia and Milton Severo also participated in the article, which is available HERE.