September 9/CBC News -- Fewer children are eating the recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables compared with 10 years ago, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario.

The group released a report based on a survey of 1,189 parents with children ages six to 12. The survey asked about children's diet and exercise habits.

"It is staggering to think that the children in the streets and schools outside this building are calculated to have a life expectancy that is now less than that of their parents," said Dr. Andrew Pipe of the Heart and Stroke Foundation in Ottawa.

"This is unheard of virtually in the history of evolution of the human species, and it clearly is a call for action."

A decade ago, 20% of the parents surveyed said their children ate five or more servings of fruits and vegetables daily, the minimum recommendation. By 2009, the prevalence dropped by a third, to one in eight (13%), a finding the group called surprising.

Blocked Arteries like 50-year-old

Parents need to be frank with themselves about whether their children are overweight or obese since serious health issues can result, said Dr. Marco Di Buono, the group's director of research.

"We now know that kids who are overweight or obese have higher than normal cholesterol levels for their age," Di Buono said. "Their arteries may be blocked to the same degree as adult males in their 50s, and their blood pressure is also not at a healthy level."

Despite mandatory nutrition labeling and a new edition of Canada's Food Guide, eating habits haven't improved, the group said.

In 1998, 66% of those surveyed said their child was physically active three or more times per week during the winter. This year, the figure was 57%. During summer, 88% of parents said their children were physically active.

Winter Activity Fell

The proportion who reported eating junk food such as potato chips, french fries, candy or chocolate no more than twice a week stayed the same at 75%.

As a first step, parents should learn what it means to eat healthy and how often their children should be physically active, Di Buono suggested.

"Parents cannot do it alone. The food industry and grocers need to continue to make foods healthier and readily available. Schools could also do their part -- by teaching what a protein is in home economics classes, for example. Communities need to be safe to encourage people to exercise," Di Buono said.

"The results show the need to reinforce the importance of physical activity throughout the year," Di Buono said, noting that perhaps the Greater Toronto Area could learn from northern Ontario, where parents reported more physical activity during wintertime.

The activity does not have to be expensive or structured as a team sport. Simply bundling up and going for a walk or playing at a snow-filled park helps, he said.

Problem Under-reported by Parents

It's a natural instinct for parents not to see the worst in their children, said Dr. Sean Wharton, a Heart and Stroke Foundation medical adviser and obesity expert, but parents often tend to underestimate their children's junk food consumption and overestimate physical activity levels.

A 2008 study by Statistics Canada for example found 33% of children reported more use of computer and video games than their parents did, and 34% of children also reported watching more TV than their parents said they did.

Parents need to think about the importance of promoting a healthy weight as a means of prevention the same way handwashing or brushing your teeth are considered, Wharton said.

The report's authors also found that children in Toronto and the surrounding area appeared to be less likely to eat five or more fruits and vegetables a day or whole grains, with almost 70% of parents saying they almost always or occasionally go without some types of food because of cost.

Rates on going without foods such as meat, fresh fruits and vegetables and dairy products ranged across the province. In Southwestern Ontario, 52% of parents reported they almost always or occasionally go without these foods while in Northern Ontario, 79% said they went without.

To that end, the foundation has created a fund to provide financial support to community groups advocating heart-healthy opportunities for children in Ontario, such as helping citizens to advocate for municipalities to build a playing field instead of a drive-through fast food outlet.

The 1998 survey polled a national sample of 424 parents of children ages six to 12. The results are considered accurate within plus or minus 4.9 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Results of this year's survey are considered accurate within plus or minus 3.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, with the exception of the survey of physical activity, where the margin of error is plus or minus 5.0 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

The general findings can be extended to other provinces since studies suggest that diet and exercise results in Ontario are close to the national average, Di Buono said.

From the September 14, 2009, Prepared Foods E-dition