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Young people and healthy eating: a systematic review of research on barriers and facilitators

What do we want to know?

The promotion of healthy eating is high on the health policy agenda in the UK. Young people are a particularly important group, as poor eating habits established during teenage years may be maintained into adulthood, creating a number of cardiovascular and other health-related problems later in life. Putting policy into practice means developing and implementing effective interventions for and with young people. This review aims to provide a summary of evidence to help develop, implement and evaluate interventions for promoting healthy eating amongst young people aged 11 to 16 years. We had a particular focus on young people from socially excluded groups at greatest risk for poor nutrition and on interventions targeting structural or environmental barriers to healthy eating (e.g. access to healthy foods) .

Who wants to know?

Practitioners, policy-makers, researchers, young people.

What did we find?  

A small number of well-designed evaluations were identified and these revealed mixed evidence on effectiveness. All studies detected at least some positive effects on healthy eating. Interventions were  multi-component complementing classroom activities with school-wide initiatives and environmental changes. The interventions also involved parents. there was stronger evidence for effectiveness amongst young women compared to young men. Little of this research was undertaken in the UK or looked at the effects of socially excluded groups.

Young people had clear views on healthy eating. Barriers to healthy eating included the cost and poor availability of healthy eating foods and the association of these foods with adults/parents. In contrast, 'fast foods' were widely available, tastier, and were associated with pleaseure, friendship and being able to exercise choice. Ideas for promoting nutrition included the provision of information on nutritional content of school meals (for young women particularly), and better food labelling.

Evaluated interventions often neglected the views of young people, especially in terms of their concerns about the taste, cost and availability of healthy foods.

What are the implications?

There is a need to develop and strengthen the evidence-base in this area. Future studies should evaluate interventions which take the views of young people as a starting point. Promising interventions are those which address concerns such as the high cost of healthy foods, a taste preference for ‘fast foods’ or lack of ‘will-power’ to avoid ‘fast-foods’, and food labelling.

Interventions, and their evaluations, also need to consider issues of gender, inequalities in health, and the inter-relationships between healthy eating, physical activity and mental health.

How did we get these results?

The review map was based on 116 studies. Exhaustive searches and critical appraisal identified 15 studies for the in-depth review: seven high quality evaluations from around the world which studied the effects of interventions to promote healthy eating at the community or society level; and eight qualitative and other types of studies of young people’s views in the UK

This summary was prepared by the EPPI Centre

This report should be cited as: Shepherd J, Harden A, Rees R, Brunton G, Garcia J, Oliver S, Oakley A (2001) Young people and healthy eating: a systematic review of research on barriers and facilitators. London: EPPI Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London. 

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