In September 2011, BNF published a new Briefing Paper on nutrition, health and schoolchildren.
Healthy eating and being physically active are particularly important for children and adolescents. This is because their nutrition and lifestyle influence their wellbeing, growth and development. The nutritional requirements of children and adolescents are high in relation to their size because of the demands for growth, in addition to requirements for body maintenance and physical activity. Physical activity has a major impact on health at all stages of life. In children and young people physical activity is particularly important to maintain energy balance and therefore a healthy bodyweight, for bone and muscoskeletal development, for reducing the risk of diabetes and hypertension, and for numerous psychological and social aspects. There is concern that many children spend too much time engaged or sedentary activity and not enough time being active. In England, children and young people, in particular girls, from some ethnic groups (Black African, Indian, Chinese, Pakistani, Bangladeshi) had lower activity levels compared with the general population.
Trends in overweight and obesity in children and adolescents have become increasingly worrying. Overweight and obesity are associated with an increased risk of various conditions in adulthood, but consequences of overweight and obesity are already observed in children. Obese children have been shown to already have many of the changes associated with vascular disease in adults, including insulin resistance, high blood pressure and elevated levels of blood cholesterol. Considered previously to be a disease of adults, in the last decade, type 2 diabetes mellitus has become a far more common occurrence in children and adolescents. In addition, multiple studies have suggested that childhood overweight and obesity track into adulthood. Evidence shows that there seems to be no single dietary or lifestyle factor that leads to overweight and obesity, but a variety of different, often interlinked factors, exist.
Oral health has clearly improved since the 1970s, mainly due to fluoridation of water and toothpaste and generally improved oral hygiene, although nutrition plays a role as well. A sufficient supply of calcium and vitamin D, as well as being physically active, is important for healthy bone development. Estimates of the prevalence of food allergy in the UK vary, but have been suggested to be around 5–8% in children, the incidence of perceived food allergies and intolerances usually being considerably greater than the actual prevalence. It has been suggested that avoidance of certain allergens at an early age may decrease the risk of food allergy, although not all experts share this view, some suggesting that there are critical periods in early life when exposure triggers normal immune system tolerance. It has also been suggested that diet affects mental health, including cognitive function and depression, although there is limited evidence.
One way to improve dietary habits of schoolchildren is via food provided in schools. Standards for school food are available in all UK countries. Nutritional standards for packed lunches prepared at home have not been set, and research in England has shown that the composition of these lunches is less favourable than lunch provided at school. Ways of improving the quality of packed lunches have been investigated, with only limited success. Other schemes, such as fruit and vegetable schemes and breakfast clubs, have also been initiated with the aim to improve the dietary habits of schoolchildren. Furthermore, each UK country has the study of food and nutrition incorporated into the school curriculum.