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Understanding dietary guidelines

Poor maths skills means people fail to understand dietary guidelines

Published on: 12 April 2016

Three-quarters of adults can’t work out how much sugar they are meant to consume, a new survey has revealed.

A report from the charity National Numeracy highlights that poor maths skills are letting people down in understanding dietary guidelines as too many people struggle working out the numbers behind dietary information on food labels.

Today a leading health expert at Newcastle University insists that good numeracy is important in light of warnings about rising obesity and diabetes levels.

One in four can’t understand nutrition label

Gill Rowlands, Professor of General Practice, Institute of Health and Society at Newcastle University, said: “People need to be able to understand and use numbers to make decisions about their health.

"The finding that only one in every four people could understand the sugar information in a nutrition label is particularly important given current World Health Organisation warnings on the rising levels of obesity and diabetes.

“We need to raise awareness of the importance of health literacy, including numeracy skills, amongst the public, education providers and health services, and work together to improve numeracy skills for health.”  

Results of survey

As part of a YouGov poll commissioned by National Numeracy, 2,000 people were shown a chocolate bar label setting out the amount of sugars in the bar both in grams and as a percentage of the total daily allowance. They were then asked which of six options came nearest to the daily reference intake for sugars in grams.

Only 26% gave the correct answer. Half of those surveyed gave wrong answers and 24% declined to make any estimate, saying they didn’t know. There was a marked difference between men and women, with 36% of men but only 18% of women giving the right answer. The question tested numeracy skills at roughly GCSE-level.

The results also showed regional differences across the UK. Londoners were most likely to correctly calculate the daily reference intake for sugars, followed by people in the North of England.  Those in Wales were least likely, with people in Scotland and Northern Ireland also scoring near the low end.

Good numeracy skills important for health

Mike Ellicock, National Numeracy Chief Executive said: “The maths you need for everyday life isn’t particularly complicated. But you do need to be able to apply it in all sorts of ordinary situations, whether that’s looking after your health, understanding food labels or working out the best deals in supermarkets.

“Good numeracy skills are clearly necessary for managing health and diet and yet – as this survey suggests – too many people aren’t confident with the numbers. But there really is help out there for people to brush up their skills. The National Numeracy Challenge builds the practical maths skills and confidence needed for all aspects of life – including understanding sugar consumption.”

Press release adapted with thanks from National Numeracy.


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