Teenagers are not known for having the best eating habits. Instead of nutritious fare, they tend more towards the empty calories of snacks and fast foods. One would hope that during these years while they are still living at home with their parents, they would possibly have a shot at decent nutrition. But the latest research, alas, shows that is not the case, at least not when it comes to eating fruit and vegetables.
According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the majority of teens in the United States do not consume the recommended daily amount of fruit or vegetables.1 The CDC researchers combed through the information gathered in the 2010 National Youth Physical Activity and Nutrition Study, which surveyed 10,765 high school students all around the country about what types of fruits and vegetables they had eaten in the past week and the frequency of consumption.
The survey showed that about one-quarter of the participating high school students ate fruit less than once a day and approximately one-third ate vegetables less than once a day (unless you count pizza as a vegetable, as the US Congress now does). The recommended amount of these foods for teenagers is 1.5 cups of fruits and 2.5 cups of vegetables for girls and two cups of fruits and three cups of vegetables for boys per day. And that’s for teens who are getting less than half an hour of exercise daily, which is a whole other story. Clearly — with an average intake of just 1.2 fruits and vegetables per day — many of them are falling far short.
When the kids were broken down into subgroups, the researchers found that boys did a little better than girls when it came to fruit consumption. Boys averaged eating fruits 1.4 times each day, whereas girls averaged 1.2 times each day. Students who identified themselves as non-Hispanic black or Hispanic ate less fruit and vegetables than those self-identified as non-Hispanic white.
Not even 17 percent of those surveyed ate fruits four or more times per day and only a measly 11 percent ate vegetables four or more times daily. This is sad news, since a healthy diet depends on fruit and vegetable consumption as its foundation because of their wealth of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytonutrients, and fiber. And the bad choices that these kids are making now impact their still-growing bodies and set them up for a range of physical ailments in the future.
It’s hard, however, to blame the teenagers for their eating habits. After all, they were raised watching television chock full of commercials for practically every type of junk food known to man. The food industry spends $1.6 billion per year advertising directly to children. A 2009 study showed that children’s networks exposed their little viewers to 76 percent more food advertising per hour than the networks featuring programming for adults.2 The study proved that the advertising really works, with the 4- to 6-year-old participants consistently rating snacks represented by a familiar cartoon character as superior to essentially identical snacks that were “untoonified.” When kids get off to this kind of start, their eating habits aren’t suddenly going to improve. They just eventually turn into the teenagers of the CDC report.
In an ideal world, we can all work to mold our children’s preferences in foods from a young age, teaching them to eat a great variety of fruits and vegetables every day, limiting their television time, and getting them physically active. But we don’t live in an ideal world, and many parents haven’t done any of that — having trained their kids on buckets of fried chicken, with mash potatoes, gravy and biscuits. However, even if your children are already teens, it’s not too late to help them turn around their eating habits and make positive changes.
Be a good role model. Tell them your whole family is going to start being healthier together. Stop buying the junk and keep plenty of fresh fruit and veggies around. If they are really hungry for a snack and there are no chips or cookies on hand, they will eat the sliced apples or carrots and dip. They may not always make the best choices when it comes to what to eat when they are out with their friends, but you still have control at home while they live there. Make the most of it, and give them a sound foundation for the future.
PS: And it won’t hurt your health any, either.
1 Kim, Sonia A.; Grimm, Kirsten A.; Harris, Diane M.; et al. “Fruit and Vegetable Consumption Among High School Students–United States, 2010.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 25 November 2011. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 1 December 2011. <http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/pdf/wk/mm6046.pdf>.
2 Bell, Robert A.; Cassady, Diana; Culp, Jennifer; Alcalay, Rina. “Frequency and Types of Foods Advertised on Saturday Morning and Weekday Afternoon English- and Spanish-Language American Television Programs.” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. November 2009. Elsevier Inc.. 1 December 2011. <http://www.jneb.org/article/S1499-4046(08)00693-3/abstract>.