Youth and Nutrition: If “You Are What You Eat”, What Are Teens?

Sometimes in our worry over the many issues facing youth (sex, drugs, gangs, etc.), we adults forget to focus on one of the most basic of needs: proper nutrition. “You are what you eat” we always say… does that mean that teens are McDonald’s cheeseburgers? Are they french fries, pizza, soda? Maybe teens eat all those cookies because they’re sweet?  In our many conversations with you – whether you’re a parent, teacher, coach or community member – we need to be hammering home just five basic principles about food.

MPj03863650000[1]1. Eat three regular meals and two snacks a day.

According to the American Dietetic Association, more than half of male teens and more than two-thirds of female teens do not eat breakfast on a regular basis. Skipping meals actually makes your body over-eat later in the day. Teens often think that if they skip a meal, then they’re going to lose weight, but the truth is that regular meals help control weight, mood and ability to concentrate. Encourage teens to eat all three meals, and if they’re concerned about weight, teach them the value of portion control.

2. Eat when hungry and stop when full.

The American culture is a fast-paced one that doesn’t often encourage enjoyment of a meal. It takes your body 20 minutes from the time you start eating to register that it is full. Encourage youth to slow down when they eat and to not overeat. Children need to understand that how often we eat does not impact our weight and health as much as the amount we eat at each sitting.

3. Eat foods from all of the food groups.

There are no good foods or bad foods. All foods can be part of healthy eating, when eaten in moderation. Everyone needs grains, fruits, vegetables, proteins, dairy proteins, and healthy fats each day to meet your nutritional needs.

4. Limit sweets and high-fat foods.

Teens tend to eat too much food that is high in fat, sugar and calories. The main culprits are soda and fast food restaurants:

Soda. Sugary drinks are a big source of empty energy. In other words, they provide a lot of energy through high calories that your body does not need, but do not provide vitamins, minerals, protein, or even fiber. A study of American youths aged 6-17 found an increase in the amount of soft drink consumption from 37% in 1978 to 56% in 1998. Encourage youth to choose juice or water. The fruit flavored carbonated water is a positive alternative to soda.

Fast food. Teens tend to eat more fast food than when they were younger because school, sports and work schedules overlap with regular meal times. But the statistics are troublesome. A study by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) found that, after 15 years, those who ate at fast-food restaurants more than twice each week compared to less than once a week had gained an extra ten pounds and had a two-fold greater increase in insulin resistance, a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes. Researchers found that the adverse impact on participants’ weight and insulin resistance was seen in both blacks and whites who ate frequently at fast-food restaurants, even after adjustment for other lifestyle habits. One reason for the weight gain may be that a single meal from one of these restaurants often contains enough calories to satisfy a person’s caloric requirement for an entire day. Encourage youth to limit their fast food intake to only once a week. If their schedule prevents them from eating dinner with the family, suggest heating up leftovers or making a sandwich at home.

5. Eat meals together as a family as much as possible.

Eating meals together as a family combats two of the problems we have already discussed: skipping meals and fast food. If there’s healthy food being offered with face-to-face time, teens will undoubtedly improve their nutrition. But, even more than that, a new report by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University reveals that, compared to teens who have frequent family dinners without distractions at the table, those who have infrequent family dinners are three times likelier to use marijuana and tobacco, and two and a half times likelier to use alcohol. So a little nutrition goes a long way towards good health!

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