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Three teenagers eating takeaway pizza

Encouraging healthier eating for adolescents

Published: 12 March 2024

Food plays an important social role for adolescents. Social interactions are core to young people’s food choices but the places they prefer often promote cheap, unhealthy food.

Research by experts from the Institute of Life Sciences reveals that in order to encourage adolescents to eat better, consideration needs to be given to planning social spaces that are desirable for young people but that also promote healthier food.

The research, led by Dr Sarah Shaw, is already informing national and local government policy and is being presented to a Parliamentary Committee Inquiry that aims to understand how better planning and urban design can enhance the health and wellbeing of young people.

The social importance of food

The interdisciplinary study by academics from Medicine and Health Sciences shows that adolescents use food outlets as places to socialise and develop connections with their peers. 

Adolescence is increasingly recognised as a critical developmental life stage when biological and neurological maturing are accompanied by dramatic changes in social and cultural expectations. It is a time when their long-term trajectories for health and wellbeing are established.

Sarah, together with Professor Mary Barker and Dr Christina Vogel, carried out a series of online focus groups with young people aged 11 to 18, from secondary schools and colleges in England, to understand the different factors that play a role in their food choices.

The focus groups showed the value young people place on social interactions with their peers and its importance when deciding which food outlets to visit. They tend to prefer fast-food places that provide a welcoming social space with affordable, familiar and popular food. 

To support adolescents to eat better, it is essential that future planning regulations provide social spaces where these young people want to spend time but that also promote healthier food.

Dr Sarah Shaw

Learning from the results

The results of the research recommends that future planning regulations needs to take into account the design of food outlets so that they are more supportive of health and still meet the social needs of young people.

The findings also provide important insights into the role government food environment policies can have on adolescents’ food choices and demonstrate that they should be incorporated into policy decisions.

The report recommendations are being presented to the Government’s Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Parliamentary Committee and have been discussed with Southampton policymakers who are considering future planning and zoning regulations to better support health and wellbeing in the City.

Informing future research

This project has led to further NIHR-funded research that aims to understand the impact of government legislation on the food purchases and diets of adolescents, such as restricting the prominent placement of foods high in fat, sugar and salt in UK convenience stores.

Young people are frequent users of convenience stores where they do much of their independent food shopping and many of these stores are exempt from these restrictions as they are too small or may have difficulty implementing the restrictions due to limited resources.

The research will explore the intended and unintended consequences of this legislation on this age group as well as other populations who frequently use convenience stores.

Focusing on adolescent health

The project is part of the emphasis that the Institute for Life Sciences puts on adolescent health addressing issues in this area across the UK and globally. Their work aims to support young people to achieve their potential by understanding the relationships between physical, psychological and social changes through adolescence, and how young people navigate these changes.

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