Growing Up in Scotland: Sweep 3 Food and Activity Report

This report uses data from the Growing Up in Scotland study to explore the prevalence of, and many issues related to, food and activity in Scotland specifically in relation to young children.

Executive Summary


This report uses data from the Growing Up in Scotland ( GUS) study to explore issues related to food and activity in Scotland specifically in relation to young children. Findings are based on data from the older cohort involved in the study which was collected over the first three years of GUS. These data therefore refer to a period when the cohort children were aged between 2 years and 10 months (sweep 1), and 4 years and 10 months (sweep 3). Interviews were carried out annually between April 2005 and May 2008. Further information on GUS can be found at:

Diet and eating

Although more limited in scope than dedicated diet and nutrition studies, GUS is able to provide useful information on the range of food types - both healthy and unhealthy - eaten by pre-school children on a typical day. Moreover, the study has the additional benefit of including a suite of questions designed to examine parental views and experiences in relation to their children's eating. In combination, these allow for the exploration of choice, behaviour and experiences in early years provision and consumption of food across socio-economic groups.

  • Children in the lowest income group and those living in deprived areas were much less likely to eat four or more types of fruit and vegetables per day, and more likely to eat sugary snacks and drinks, than were children from affluent backgrounds.
  • Half of mothers in the highest income bracket knew 'a great deal' about healthy eating, compared to less than a third (30%) in the lowest income bracket.
  • A significant minority (16%) said they found it fairly or very difficult to control the amount of sweets, sugary snacks and drinks their child eats or drinks.
  • The cost of food had an effect on what food parents provided for their child for 41% of the lowest income group and 34% of those in deprived areas, compared to only 11% of those in the top income group and 19% of those in the least deprived areas.
  • Four in ten (41%) children in the most deprived areas had eaten a takeaway in the last week, compared to only 23% of children in affluent areas.
  • Whilst 55% of mothers in the least deprived areas said mealtimes were mostly enjoyable and 60% said the family mostly had time to talk, the corresponding figures for the most deprived areas were 36% and 38%.
  • Twice as many parents in the highest income category said mealtimes were 'never' rushed (42% compared to only 20% in the lowest income group).
  • Fifteen percent of children in managerial and professional households were classified as having a relatively poor diet, in contrast to 34% of children in Semi-routine and routine households.

Physical and sedentary activity

The report also explores whether children are participating in physical and sedentary activities; the types of activities that they do and whether this varies by socio-economic and neighbourhood characteristics. It also examines the impact which parental attitudes and aspirations have on children's activity levels.

  • The vast majority of children had done some form of physical activity in the previous week, with two-thirds of children participating in five or more types of activity.
  • Eighty-five percent of children were reported to have watched TV every day in the past week, with just 1% having watched no TV.
  • Not all children who had high physical activity levels had low sedentary activity levels and vice versa.
  • There appeared to be a considerable socio-economic divide between highly active and highly inactive children: highly active children were more likely to be in households in the highest income quartile and in managerial and professional households.
  • Neighbourhood also had an effect: 29% of children with low activity levels lived in the most deprived areas, in contrast to 14% who lived in the least deprived areas.
  • Highly active children were more likely to live in areas where their parent reported there being 'very good' or 'good' facilities for young children, and where social and leisure facilities for parents themselves were good.
  • Parents of highly active children tended to report being active themselves with their child and were also more likely to participate in activities such as playing outside with their child than were parents of less active children. Three-quarters of children in the lowest activity group had not run around or played outside with their mother in the week prior to the interview.
  • Parental beliefs had an impact on levels of child activity, with parents who thought exercise was important having more active children. Those who thought cultural and social activities were important were also more likely to have active children.

The relationship between nutrition, activity, and Bmi

  • There appeared to be a relationship between diet and activity: among children with a relatively poor diet, 42% were in the low activity and 22% in the high activity group.
  • Less active children appear more likely to consume unhealthier foods, however, there was relatively little variation in the proportions of children snacking on fruit across children of all three activity levels.
  • Less active children are less likely to eat a variety of vegetables on a typical day than their more active counterparts.
  • More active children are more likely to eat more types of fruit than children who are less active.
  • The data shows an association between sedentary activities and eating unhealthy foods. For example, among those who watched TV for more than 2.5 hours on weekdays, 53% ate crisps, and 45% ate chocolates and sweets between meals, in contrast to children who watched up to 30 minutes of TV on weekdays, of whom 32% ate crisps, and 33% ate chocolates and sweets between meals.
  • There was a very small difference in BMI and in the relative quality of children's diets in sweep 3: among obese toddlers, 9% were in the relatively good diet category, and 29% in the relatively poor diet category, while the respective figures for normal weight children are 13% and 24%.
  • Children who were of normal weight, overweight and obese in sweep 2 had a very similar activity score in sweep 3, and were roughly evenly spread among the low, medium and high activity category.

Breastfeeding and nutrition in childhood

  • Children who had been breastfed had a healthier diet in childhood than those who had not been breastfed.
  • Children who were breastfed were more likely to snack on fruit (a difference of 11% between those who were breastfed and those who were not), and more likely to snack on savoury snacks like cheese than children who were never breastfed (again,
    a difference of 11%).
  • Children who were breastfed were also less likely to snack on crisps between meals.
  • Children who had not been breastfed were more likely to eat sweets (a 7% difference) and more likely to consume sugary drinks more than once a day than breastfed children (14% difference).
  • There was a socio-economic effect related to children's breastfeeding history. Children of wealthier households, born to mothers with more qualifications and more advantaged socio-economic backgrounds were more likely to be breastfed.
  • A child's breastfeeding history seems to have a significant, yet small, effect on the child's BMI in later childhood. Children who had been breastfed were marginally more likely (by 3%) to have a 'normal' weight, and marginally less likely (by 3%) to be obese.
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