Health and wellness

Healthy Hong Kong future rests on lunchbox choices

The latest survey on children’s food offers some hope, but in a society where obesity and lifestyle-related illnesses are common there is room for improvement

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 September, 2018, 9:19pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 September, 2018, 10:20pm

We do not lack a wide variety of food choices, or unsolicited advice on making the right ones for a healthy diet. We do not always get it right, judging by the incidence of obesity and lifestyle-related illnesses, often the outcome of diet and sedentary habits established in childhood. That is why the results of periodic surveys of school lunchbox contents matter.

Measured against guidelines on intakes, the latest survey is generally positive compared with the previous one five years ago, but overall the results need to be better. Ahead of the new academic year, the Centre for Health Protection (CHP) and the Centre for Food Safety released findings from tests on 100 lunchbox samples collected from 26 primary schools in January. They showed nutrient levels had improved, with total fats, saturated fats, trans fats and sugar in most samples falling below the upper recommended limits. But they contained too much protein and not enough dietary fibre.

Average salt content had dropped “significantly” from 951 milligrams five years ago to 818mg, or 14 per cent. Excessive salt intake increases the risk of hypertension, a factor in heart disease and strokes. But this is one result that still needs to improve. At a rate of reduction of 5 to 10 per cent a year, it would take a decade to reach the targeted level of 500mg of sodium. That said, overseas experience shows a gradual reduction in salt content helps pupils accept it.

Hong Kong kids eating less salt, sugar and fat but too much protein

Overall, dietary fibre exceeded the recommended intake, but in 40 per cent of cases it did not. Too much protein, essential for growth and development, puts strain on the kidneys and liver.

The lunchbox guidelines first introduced more than 10 years ago are not legally binding. Clearly they are not fully effective either. But amid the proliferation of junk food they remain important in instilling some basic dietary discipline. The CHP says overweight and obese youngsters are likely to remain that way into adulthood, and at risk of cardiovascular, liver and bone diseases. To promote continued improvement in the quality of lunchboxes, the authorities should consider more frequent, random surveys of contents, and more detailed disclosure of results to schools, parents and suppliers to inject an incentive and element of accountability.