More than two thirds of children's meals in Irish and British restaurants contain more fat and saturated fat than recommended guidelines, according to new research carried out by Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) and the University of Roehampton in Britain.
The study, published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behaviour, looked at children menus from 20 popular chain restaurants and analysed over 39,000 meal combinations. A total of 35 Irish restaurants were reviewed of which 21 had a specific children’s menu.
Currently, in Ireland, it is estimated that 60% of adults and 25% of children are overweight or obese, while 24% of total energy from food and drink is consumed outside the home.
The aim of the study was to compare children’s meals in chain restaurants in Britain and Ireland with British dietary recommendations. The researchers compared meals from fast food and full-service restaurants, as well as meal deals versus single course main meals in the belief that eating at restaurants would adversely impact the diet of Irish and British children.
The research found that the average meal for younger children (aged between two and five years) contained 609 ±117 kcal, and for older children (six to 12 years) 653 ± 136 kcal. This compared with the recommended guidelines of 364 and 550 kcal, for younger and older children, respectively.
A total of 68% of younger children's and 55% of older children's meals contained more total fat than recommended and more than four times the amount of saturated fat. Fast food restaurant meals contained less energy, fat, and salt than did full-service restaurants, and meal deals were less likely to meet dietary guidelines than main meals alone.
The research additionally found comparing meal deals and the single main course highlighted the extent to which additional courses and drinks contribute to the energy content of a meal. In particular, by choosing the meal deal option, seen as more convenient and cheaper, parents are perhaps unknowingly ordering meals that exceed dietary recommendations.
Dr Tara Coppinger of the Department of Sport, Leisure & Childhood Studies at CIT and one of the authors of the research said the findings indicated a "worrying trend" of young children eating increasingly unhealthy food.
"While the sugar-sweetened drinks tax that came into effect in 2018 was a positive step to help improve the quality of food and drink on offer, this study proves that there is still a lot of work to be done in many of the country’s most popular restaurants," she said.