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Boys worse than girls at eating up their greens

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by Cancer Research UK | News

5 June 2005

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Boys are more reluctant than girls to swallow Jamie Oliver-style healthy school dinners – according to a new survey on children’s favourite foods published today*.

Cancer Research UK scientists found that more boys than girls, aged 4 to 16, liked fatty and sugary foods, meat, processed meat and eggs while more girls than boys liked fruit and vegetables which can help to reduce cancer risk in later life.

But when it came to favourite foods both boys and girls put chocolate, pizza and ice cream at the top of the list. The good news is that some fruit – strawberries and grapes – also featured in the top ten.

Bottom of the list included those foods that would help contribute to a healthier diet: spinach, leeks, marrow, swede, sprouts and turnips.

Other unpopular foods included cabbage, cauliflower, mushrooms, onions, parsnips, celery and liver.

Lucy Cooke, of Cancer Research UK’s Health Behaviour Unit, sent out a questionnaire to around 1300 children from west London. It featured 115 different items of food and invited children to tick one of the following beside each item: Never tried it; I hate it; I don’t like it; It’s OK; I like it and I love it.

“The results of the questionnaire clearly show that children prefer unhealthy foods,” says Lucy Cooke. “Girls tend to like – and actually eat – fruit and vegetables more than boys and this is particularly so in the teenage years when girls become more conscious of their diet and how they look. But levels are still far lower than they should be for a healthy balanced diet.”

Professor Jane Wardle, director of Cancer Research UK’s health behaviour unit, says: “Diet plays an essential role in our health throughout life and eating plenty of fruit and vegetables can reduce the risk of cancer. We know that adult obesity increases cancer risk and eating a balanced diet helps maintain a healthy weight.

“This means that it is very important for children to learn good eating habits when they are young to help reduce their cancer risk in later life. This study shows that children’s preferences are not consistent with a healthy diet and that boys in particular need to be encouraged to eat healthier foods.

“But research has shown that children can learn to like foods more if they try them often enough. So providing healthy foods in schools would make a valuable contribution to improving children’s diets in the future.”

Richard Davidson, director of public affairs for Cancer Research UK said: “Education on healthy eating in schools is essential. Teachers throughout the country should be given information on the best way to help children learn about the advantages of eating fruit and vegetables and the effects of being seriously overweight. Practical lessons on how to prepare healthy food could be useful as an informal approach.”

Top ten foods for girls were:

  1. Chocolate
  2. Strawberries
  3. Fruit juice
  4. Pasta
  5. Pizza
  6. Ice Cream
  7. Grapes
  8. Ice lollies
  9. Chocolate biscuits
  10. Cakes

Top ten foods for boys were:

  1. Pizza
  2. Chocolate
  3. Ice cream
  4. Choc biscuits
  5. Fruit juice
  6. Ice lollies
  7. Fizzy drinks
  8. Pasta
  9. Cakes
  10. Crisps


Cooke, L., & Wardle, J. (2007). Age and gender differences in children’s food preferences British Journal of Nutrition, 93 (05) DOI: 10.1079/BJN20051389