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Early Years Health

Dr Breige McNulty


Researchers in the UCD institute of Food and Health and their partners collected for the first time in Ireland comprehensive data on what young Irish children around the country were eating. Nutrition during the first years of life is critical for growth and life-long health and well-being. This study enabled the examination of the adequacy of preschool children’s diets. It was instrumental in helping to create strategies to improve nutrition and to create the first food-based dietary guidelines for one- to five year-olds in Ireland thereby ensuring a healthy future for our children.

Strong scientific evidence indicates that a healthy diet helps maintain or improve general health. It is important for lowering many chronic health risks, such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Whereas on the other hand a poor diet can have an adverse impact on health, causing deficiency diseases and health-threatening conditions such as dental carries and obesity in children.


The National Preschool Nutrition Survey examined the diet of 500 preschool children (aged 1-5 years) in Ireland, collecting detailed information on food intakes over a four-day period. Analyses indicated that intakes of carbohydrate, total fat, fibre, and most micronutrients were in good compliance with recommendations. However, intakes of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, important for neurological development, were low and significant proportions of children had inadequate intakes of vitamin D and iron. Free sugar and salt intakes exceeded recommendations. By four years of age, patterns established for intakes of salt, saturated fat and free sugars were unfavourable and similar to those observed in the diets of older children.

Monitoring the food we consume as a population is vitally important to help us understand what nutrition we are gaining from foods and how it is affecting our health. This is especially important in the early years as dietary habits formed can ultimately persist into later life, and research has demonstrated how these early feeding practices are linked with many non-communicable diseases in adulthood. Our study identified the need for dietary strategies that improve the quality of the diet of young children in Ireland.


Health & Social Impact

The National Preschool Nutrition Survey (NPNS) had a direct effect on our society and health facilitating the analysis of nutrition and food safety of our preschool children’s diets. The study enabled the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) to design the first-ever food-based dietary guidelines for 1 to 5 year olds in Ireland. The foundations of healthy eating begin in childhood and these guidelines support the first steps to better health, improving the adequacy of diets, decreasing risk of chronic disease later in life, and ultimately improving the health of the nation. NPNS data was used by the Central Statistics Office to assess the level of stunting and malnutrition in Ireland in the report Ireland’s United Nation Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2019 Report on Indicators for Goal 2 Zero Hunger. Enabling our society to monitor how Ireland is progressing towards meeting its targets under the SDGs to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. The NPNS data allowed risk assessments to be undertaken for young members of Irish society, this is important as children are most at risk to increased exposure to food chemicals.

The FSAI and the DAFM benefited from NPNS data, enabling them to satisfy an important component of European Union Regulations in ensuring food chemicals are kept within safe intake levels. So, risk assessments on sweetener intakes have been possible, ruling out any health risk to Irish preschool children from over-exposure to sweeteners in their diet. The impact was also assessed in children with Phenylketonuria and severe cow's milk protein allergy using a predictive modelling approach, with results highlighting that careful consideration was warranted to avoid over-exposure in this group of children due to the consumption of artificially sweetened foods, including prescribed foods.

Academic Impact

The NPNS provides for the first time scientifically robust dietary data for young children in Ireland, adding to the limited existing scientific literature on preschool diets. It provides vital information about dietary habits that can persist into later life with a significant impact on health. Several peer-reviewed scientific publications have been produced from NPNS data on dietary intakes and patterns of Irish preschool children. As an example, investigations of the determinants of nutrients of concern, e.g. vitamin D, will help the development of strategies for the improvement of intakes and overall health in this group.

Economic Impact

The study enabled several industry stakeholders to examine the contribution of their products to nutritional intakes in children, allowing them to demonstrate the positive effects of new products or reformulation on nutritional health in the population. The Irish Bread Bakers Association commissioned an in-depth analysis of the contribution of bread to preschool childrens' diets. Food Drink Ireland, which represents the food and drink industries, used NPNS data to model the effect of reformulation and new product development, showing decreases in sugar and saturated fat in Irish diets between 2005 and 2017 as a result of voluntary undertakings by food and drink companies.


UCD Institute of Food and Health

University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland.
T: +353 1 716 7777 | E: foodandhealth@ucd.ie