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Young people lack knowledge about what food contains, and meat eaters know the least
A new study shows that young people have moderate knowledge about food and nutrition. Many find it challenging to identify the nutrients present in their food.
“The young participants in our study generally demonstrate moderate literacy in matters of food and nutrition, as reflected in the moderate quality of their diet,” Synne Groufh-Jacobsen says. She is a research fellow at the University of Agder (UiA).
Groufh-Jacobsen has explored the knowledge and eating habits of young people with various plant-based diets.
She has compared those with plant-based diets with a control group of young individuals who consume all types of food, including meat.
Meat eaters know the least
165 young individuals from Agder aged 16-24 participated in the study. They were categorised into five distinct diet types:
- Vegans – only plant-based foods.
- Lacto-ovo vegetarians – predominantly plant-based, including varying amounts of dairy and eggs, but no meat or fish.
- Pescatarians – mostly plant-based with some seafood, dairy, and eggs, but no meat.
- Flexitarians – mostly plant-based with limited amounts of animal products (meat or meat products less than twice a week).
- Omnivores (control group) – all types of food without dietary restrictions.
The study shoed that the vegans and flexitarians were best at following national dietary guidelines.
The omnivores (control group) had the lowest quality diet and demonstrated the least knowledge about food.
Knowledge gaps among the youth
Groufh-Jacobsen and her colleagues gathered information on the types of food participants had consumed in the last six months.
To assess the diet quality, the foods were scored based on health authorities’ dietary advice.
The Norwegian government recommends eating a varied diet including fruits, vegetables, berries, whole grains, and fish, with moderate meat intake and limited salt and added sugar.
“Many participants lacked awareness about the healthiest food choices, struggled with interpreting food labels, and had difficulty understanding nutritional content,” Groufh-Jacobsen says.
Many were unable to differentiate between two products or determine which one contained the highest energy content.
“They couldn’t pinpoint the sources of sugar in the product. Several also did not understand the product labelling, such as the bread scale on different types of bread,” the researcher explains.
Vegans and flexitarians scored the highest
Vegans in the study stood out compared to the young omnivores.
The diet of vegans was more in line with health authority recommendations, especially in terms of vegetables, unsalted nuts and seeds, beans and legumes.
They also reported consuming fewer sugary drinks compared to omnivores.
Flexitarians who eat plant-based foods with limited amounts of meat also stood out. They exhibited the highest knowledge about food and the second-best quality of diet, only surpassed by vegans.
The study is among the first in the country to investigate both knowledge and skills related to food and nutrition among young people with plant-based diets.
A main objective has been to find out if they can put together a diet that meets the body’s needs.
“It’s not just a matter of having adequate knowledge of food and nutrition to navigate today’s food landscape, but also having sufficient skills to plan, choose, prepare, and eat foods that meet the body’s needs for nourishment,” Groufh-Jacobsen says.
She encourages young people in general, as well as those excluding certain foods from their diet, to acquire knowledge about food and nutrition.
“If you exclude several food groups from your diet, it is especially important to have sufficient knowledge of how you can replace them with other foods with similar nutritional content,” she says.
Engaged in ongoing research
The study on the eating habits of young people in Agder is part of Groufh-Jacobsen’s doctoral work.
Through ongoing studies, she will take a closer look at what young people know about food by examining their actual dietary choices and nutrient intake.
“We have only just begun to dive into the wealth of data that has been collected,” says Groufh-Jacobsen. She is a researcher at the Centre for Lifecourse Nutrition, a priority research centre at UiA.
Groufh-Jacobsen et al. Food literacy and diet quality in young vegans, lacto-ovo vegetarians, pescatarians, flexitarians and omnivores, Public Health Nutrition, vol. 26, 2023. DOI: 10.1017/S1368980023002124
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