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Unhealthy eating common among young Singaporeans

Tristan Manalac
19 Feb 2020
Let kids watch other children eating veggies and they will follow suit.

Majority of young children in Singapore fall short of the daily recommendations set by the national health board, according to a new study. Lack of maternal motivation and the perception that healthy food is insufficient to satisfy hunger are important parental factors that contribute to a child’s healthy eating behaviours.

“[W]ith limited research providing perspectives of mothers of children aged 3-12 in Singapore, specifically on how to improve their child’s behaviours in relation to healthy eating and drinking, this study will add value to the existing research applying the Theory of Planned Behaviour (TPB) for a specific group,” researchers said.

A total of 715 mothers were enrolled, corresponding to 358 preschoolers (mean age, 4.90±1.00 years; 51.1 percent female) and 358 primary school students (mean age, 9.47±1.60 years; 49.7 percent female). The younger participants were significantly more likely to be overweight (38.1 percent vs 10.9 percent; p<0.001). [Appetite 2020;148:104555]

The Singapore Health Promotion Board recommends that children consume at least one serving of dairy and two servings each of fruits and vegetables per day. Eighty-seven percent of the participants fell short of this standard.

Disaggregated analysis revealed that primary school students had worse diets than their younger counterparts. A significantly higher proportion of the former group were unable to meet the daily recommendations for dairy (48.9 percent vs 26.3 percent; p<0.001) and overall healthy food (89.9 percent vs 83.8 percent; p=0.02) intake.

Primary school children also had worse breakfast habits (p<0.001). In contrast, there were significantly more preschoolers who reported insufficient daily physical activity and who spent >30 minutes outdoors under direct sunlight per day. Sedentary behaviour was likewise greater among preschoolers.

TPB analysis found important parenting factors affecting the likelihood of children meeting healthy eating guidelines. For example, primary school kids were more likely to have better habits if they had mothers who were more confident in their ability to improve their child’s diet (p=0.01) and who were disciplined enough to help their children adopt better eating patterns (p=0.001).

Significant barriers to better eating behaviours included lack of motivation in both mothers and children, a perceived lack of satiety with healthy food, lack of family support, and difficulty in changing the child’s eating habits.

“[T]his effort offers insight into a myriad of factors that are currently inhibiting healthy eating behaviours among children aged 3–12 in Singapore, given the paucity of recent research in this area,” and provides a good foundation for future studies, which should explore potential intervention strategies, said the researchers.

“Strategies could include encouraging mothers as well as other members of the family towards healthy-eating attitudes rather than simply educating them on what to feed their children, recognizing the important influence of parental behaviour on children’s healthy eating behaviour,” they added. In turn, “[t]his could help address some of the barriers identified in this study influencing healthy eating behaviour among preschool and primary school children.”

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