National Diet and Nutrition Survey: the trends over nine years

The data reveals a number of areas the food industry could target with reformulation and fortification. 

31 January 2019
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Meet the Expert

Who: Dr. Laura Wyness

What: Independent registered nutritionist


The National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) provides details each year on food consumption, nutrient intake and nutritional status of the general population. This January, the government-funded programme released a report that examines the data collected from 2008 to 2017, providing useful insight on what dietary changes have occurred in the past nine years and where improvements are still needed.

Free sugars and sugary drinks

The consumption of free sugars has reduced significantly in children of all ages, but particularly in those aged 11-18, where it dropped by as much as 3.5 percentage points. While this is a welcome trend, the average intake still significantly exceeds the current recommendation of no more than 5% of total energy.

Looking more closely at sugar-sweetened soft drinks, the number of children drinking these beverages has been trimmed by 17-35%, depending on age. Even those who continue to drink them are cutting back on their fix (an average yearly reduction of between 3-6%). It is also worth noting that the NDNS data was collected before the sugar tax was implemented.

Intakes among adults also showed a downward trend, although this was a much smaller reduction.


Another welcome trend was the diminishing presence of sodium in all age/sex groups. The smallest average yearly reduction was seen in children aged 1.5 to 3 years (30mg/day) and the largest in boys aged 11 to 18 years (82mg/day).

Industry’s efforts to reduce salt seems to be having a positive impact, but on average adults still exceed the 6g/day recommendation.

Public Health England are expected to publish an assessment of current salt intakes for adults in England by early 2020.

Fruit and veg

Overall, there has been very little change in the number of people meeting the five-a-day target. Figures remain low at about 3 in 10 adults and 1 in 10 teenagers (those between 11 and 18-year-old), although men aged 19-64 years did slightly better than other groups, averaging a yearly increase in total fruit and veg intake of 5g/day.

Fruit juice drinking showed a downwards pattern, particularly among children aged 4-10 years, who evidenced a 54g/day reduction over the nine-year period. A 150ml portion of fruit juice can count as a portion of your five-a-day, so care needs to be taken to ensure messages to reduce free sugars does not result in consumers avoiding fruit juice completely.

Meat and fish

Although there was little change in the total amount of meat eaten, there was a downward trend in the number of people gorging on red and processed meat in all age/sex groups. For most adult age/sex groups, this was a decrease of around 1% per year.

There were no significant changes in the proportion of people eating white meat or the total amount consumed – a fact that held true for fish, too. It was only among children aged 11-18 years that there was a significant 1 percentage point increase in consumers of oily fish per week.

Intakes are still way off achieving the recommended one portion of oily fish a week.


Fibre has been in the news recently and the NDNS data confirms we are not eating enough of it. On average, Brits ingest only 18g a day – just over half the recommended intake of 30g a day.

Disappointingly, changes in fibre consumption over the nine years were negligible. With fibre benefits gaining more attention, intakes will hopefully start to increase.


The report found a downward trend in the presence of most vitamins and minerals in UK diets.

Most worryingly, there was an overall increase in the proportion of women of childbearing age with a blood folate deficiency – from about two-thirds to almost 90% – which increases the likelihood of neural tube defects in infants. Mandatory fortification of flour in the UK, which would undoubtedly improve these figures, is yet to be introduced.

Seasonal effects on vitamin D status were also apparent, with average levels in the blood lowest from January to March, when 19% of 4-10-year-olds, 37% of 11-18-year-olds and 29% of adults have an insufficiency. During times of the year when there is less sun, fortification or foods with enhanced vitamin D levels may be beneficial, but the Department of Health recommends vitamin D supplements.  

Inequalities in diet and nutrition

Those on higher incomes were closer to meeting some, but not all, dietary recommendations, and in general there was a trend for better nutritional status for micronutrients. The trend data shows that as income increased, there was a greater fruit and vegetable intake, lower percentage consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks, higher percentage consumption of fruit juice, and higher intakes of fibre, vitamin A and folate.  

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