10/08/2015 00:01 BST | Updated 09/08/2016 06:12 BST

Hospital Food Slammed As Experts Call For Review Of Nutrition Education

It is an "ironic and sad situation" that patients on hospital wards are being fed unhealthy foods such as burgers, crisps and sugary drinks, which may have contributed to their admission in the first place, a hard-hitting report by a group of nutrition experts has said.

With many people regularly eating highly-processed food options like ready meals instead of making them an occasional contribution to their diet, "there is a notion that much of the UK population has lost its way around what a healthy diet actually looks like," they said.

The panel led by Professor Peter Aggett, emeritus professor of child health and nutrition at the University of Central Lancashire, said while public health campaigns such as 5-a-day and Change4Life are well-meaning, they are missing the most vulnerable members of society.

They warned these public health initiatives may be inadvertently widening inequalities as wider uptake may come from more privileged pockets of society, while the vulnerable are left at risk of nutrient deficiency.

They used the example of women of childbearing age needing to take folic acid supplementation as around half of pregnancies are unplanned and it is important to take it before conception to avoid babies being born with defects such as spina bifida. But they said a "change of behaviour is simply off the radar for the most vulnerable groups".

The group of 10 experts in human nutrition and public health also cited a lack of training on the topic for health professionals.

They said it is up to medical schools to decide whether or not to incorporate nutrition in their programmes, and the number doing so is "disappointing".

Other healthcare professionals, such as nurses, receive some training in nutrition but the quantity and quality of this is variable. One member of the group cited their own professional training - in pharmacy and life sciences - on nutrition as taking up just four hours within their four-year course.

They said research from the Malnutrition Advisory Group also showed that three-quarters (74%) of GPs had had no undergraduate training in nutrition and 60% felt they needed training in detecting under-nutrition.

Because of a lack of sufficient training, the group warned that Dietary Reference Values, which help inform government policy and public information campaigns, have been inappropriately applied by healthcare professionals who take them as verbatim rather than a guide.

The panel warned they are not taking into account individual nutrition needs and are potentially putting the public at further risk of micronutrient deficiency.

Calling for a nationwide review of public health nutrition education, they said midwives must also play a more active role in warning expectant mothers of the importance of adequate vitamin D levels.

Prof Aggett said: "We can't expect people to successfully transition into habits supporting better micronutrient intakes, if the spaces and environments which they operate in on a daily basis are riddled with barriers."

The report was complied following a meeting of the 10 experts hosted by the Health Food Manufacturers' Association (HFMA).

Its executive director Graham Keen said: "We are very encouraged that this group of eminent experts is helping to lead the way in addressing the very real danger of a shortage of micronutrients - though not calories - throughout wide sections of the UK population.

"We are facing a time where we have the re-emergence of rickets, the need for proposed fortification of bread with folic acid, and consumers who are left confused by conflicting advice on nutrition every day.

"As the voice of the natural health industry, the HFMA is constantly working with stakeholders, officials and politicians to ensure that these issues are of top priority for the future of the health of the nation."