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Getting Teenagers to Eat Right

Find out how to help your teen maintain healthy eating habits.
By: Katy Abel

Getting Teenagers to Eat Right

They Are What They Eat...
Their brains and bones are growing like crazy, but the average 16-year-old spends little time thinking about vitamins and nutrients. With 30 percent of teens now overweight and many more engaging in "disordered" eating (anorexia, bulimia), there's heightened awareness of the need for healthier eating habits. Still, change is hard to come by, as school districts in Texas and California are discovering. Those two states are among those recently enacting bans on junk food machines in or near cafeterias. While health officials praise such efforts, many teens have simply responded by sneaking off campus to local convenient stores to buy what they can't find in the lunchroom.

"Lunch for me is chips, soda, maybe a chocolate ice cream taco," Nicole Talbott, a student at Fremont High School in Oakland, California told the New York Times. "That's all I like to eat -- the bad stuff."

Lawmakers and educators are taking up the fight against teen obesity because poor eating habits have been linked to a host of health problems, from development of Type 2 diabetes to increased heart disease risk factors. While millions are spent by the food industry to market fast food to young consumers, the federal government has invested far fewer dollars to promote healthy eating habits, such as the need to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Parents, worried about teen pregnancy or drug use, are often loath to pick a fight with a teen over a bag of Doritos.

...So, Help Them Eat "Healthy" asked nutritionist and mother of four, Connie Roberts, M.S., R.D., L.D., for some suggestions on how to encourage healthy eating by teenagers without engaging in endless arguing. (Note: Roberts not only offers advice as a professional but as a mother whose growing brood -- her fifth child is due in September -- includes two teenage boys!)

Remember kids can be lazy about food
One of the big attractions of junk food is its "grab'n'go" accessibility and portability. Roberts has observed that an uncut watermelon in the fridge stays uneaten, while pre-cut slices left on the kitchen table will quickly be devoured. Take the time to cut up fruits and vegetables for kids, or buy pre-packaged.

If possible, pack his lunch, or have him pack his own
The likelihood that lunch will consist of chips and soda is greatly reduced if a bag is packed at home. If your son or daughter has outgrown PB&J, he or she may be happy to take a homemade burrito wrap or leftover casserole to school instead. Most teens will agree to eat at least one or two types of fruits or vegetables. Sliced red peppers, cherry tomatoes, baby carrots and green apples are usually popular choices.

Don't ban all junk food, but offer lots of food choices at home
Roberts doesn't buy soda or fruit juice for home consumption, but she doesn't ban all junk food either, reasoning that if she does, it will become a "forbidden fruit." Instead, she tries to offer an array of choices, often serving fruits and vegetables buffet-style. The visual appeal and choice of different cut-up veggies, dip and tortilla chips served on an attractive platter are a more inviting alternative to a side serving of cooked broccoli.

Talk with teens (especially girls) about fat content
Both teens and adults are often confused about fat content in foods. Many weight-conscious teen girls will try to avoid fat, but eat processed, highly sugared foods that are billed as "fat free." Roberts suggests using this simple explanation as a way to help teens understand the importance of avoiding these foods: "When you eat more than you need to at one time, say a huge bowl of low-fat pasta or sugary cookies that are fat free but have a lot of calories from the sugar, the body says 'I don't need all this right now.' It doesn't need to burn all of those calories for energy, so it stores the extra calories as fat."

In fact, teens need fat in their diet. Small quantities of nuts or trail mix are great alternatives to fat free cookies or chips at lunchtime.

Have teens cook dinner (and avoid dishes!)
Roberts has found that her teen-aged sons enjoy food prep more than cleanup in the kitchen, and the added bonus is that they become "food literate" while preparing a meal for the family. "My older son now shreds zucchini into tomato sauce," Roberts observes. "We often go to a local outdoor food market to try new things like dakon, a root vegetable used in Asian cooking."

Roberts has also found that having teens around in the kitchen makes it easier for them to open up and talk about their day's activities.

"So there are so many more reasons to do this beyond nutrition," Roberts laughs. "It's nourishment in its broadest possible capacity!"

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