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Babies’ health put at risk by low benefit levels

29 April, 2003

Most pregnant teenagers are not eating an adequate diet, putting their babies’ health at risk, according to a new report published today by the Maternity Alliance1 and the Food Commission2. For many, this is because they cannot afford the healthy diet needed for themselves and their growing babies.

Forty-six pregnant women under the age of 18 were interviewed. Most reported that they ate many fatty, salty and sugary foods (such as biscuits, chips, fizzy drinks and squash) but few fruits and vegetables. Nutritional analysis of the diets showed deficiencies in several essential vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin A, magnesium, folic acid, zinc, iron and calcium.

The report, called Good Enough to Eat? The diet of pregnant teenagers, showed that two thirds of pregnant teenagers living away from family had a food budget of less than £20.25 per week – the estimated cost of a ‘modest but adequate’ diet. The same number said that their diet worsened as money ran out, as they started to eat less food and fill up on cheap, unhealthy food such as chips. One pregnant 16-year-old said that when her money starts to run out, "I normally fill myself up on bread or crisps or chocolate because it’s cheap."

"Pregnant teenagers receive significantly less benefits than mothers over the age of 25," said Christine Gowdridge, director of the Maternity Alliance. "Yet their dietary needs, and the needs of their growing babies, are the same, if not more. How can we expect teenager mothers to be able to eat healthily on less than £3 per day for food?"3

"Women on a poor diet during pregnancy are more likely to have low birthweight babies. That increases their baby’s risk of poor health during childhood and during their adult life,"4 said Tim Lobstein, director of the Food Commission. "Without sufficient cash, no amount of nutrition information, and no amount of cooking skills, will help these women protect the health of their babies."

The young women taking part in the survey were generally aware of what a healthy diet should consist of, and many were making efforts to improve their diets (e.g. drinking milk and eating more vegetables). All of those surveyed said that they had received dietary advice during their pregnancy and the majority said that they had tried to follow this advice. But almost all of those who were not able to follow the advice said that this was because they could not afford to do so. One pregnant 16-year-old explained, "I have been trying to eat more healthily but it’s not that easy because meat and stuff is really expensive."

The report’s authors called for welfare benefits to be available as soon as women confirm their pregnancy (rather than having to wait until they are 29 weeks pregnant), and for all pregnant women to be entitled to at least the same benefits as the current rates for women aged over 25.3

Further information

Click here to view  the full report Good Enough to Eat?: The diet of pregnant teenagers in pdf format.

Maternity Alliance contact: Helen Burchett on 020 7490 7639 ext.132
Food Commission contact: Annie Seeley on 020 7837 2250

Notes to editors

  1. The Maternity Alliance is an independent national charity which works to improve rights and services for all pregnant women, new mothers and their families.
  2. The Food Commission is the UK’s leading independent watchdog on food issues.
  3. The survey was based on 46 interviews with currently pregnant under 18 year olds, carried out in seven locations throughout England in 2002.
  4. Benefits for 16-17 year olds are complex and depend on the young woman’s circumstances. For a pregnant 16-17 year old in full-time education living at home, her parents can claim £38.50. If she is eligible to claim benefit in her own right she can get £32.90 a week, or in some circumstances, including where she can sho she is estranged from her parents, £43.25. Some young women of 16 and 17 may not be eligible for any benefit, even if they are pregnant and living independently. The benefit rate for a woman aged 18-24 is £43.25, and for a woman aged 25 or over, £54.65. For most pregnant teenagers, this money is only available after the 29th week of pregnancy, beyond the time when her growing foetus ha the maximum need for essential nutrients. The payments are meant to cover all costs except housing.

Additional notes

Teenage diets recorded in the survey were characterised by:

  • Many portions of fatty and salty foods;
  • Many portions of sugar-rich foods and drinks;
  • Very few portions of fruit or vegetables;
  • Deficiencies in essential vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin A, magnesium, folic acid, zinc, iron and calcium.

On the day before the interviews, of the 46 young women:

  • Almost two thirds had consumed no fruit or fruit juice;
  • Two fifths had consumed no vegetables or salad;
  • One in five had consumed neither fruit nor vegetables.
  • Only two out of the 46 women surveyed were eating the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables per day.

Detailed analysis of a sample of the diets showed that most of the young women were eating insufficient calories, yet were still eating more fat and saturated fat than the recommended daily maximum.

Many young women reported that they missed meals every day or two, reporting lack of money as the reason.

The following pages may also be of interest

  • Articles: Low benefit levels threaten babies’ health
    Most pregnant teenagers are not eating a healthy diet during their pregnancy, with many reporting that they cannot afford to do so, according to a new survey published by the Food Commission and the Maternity Alliance.