Beyond vending machines: can teens eat healthy?

By Leanne C. Lucas

University of Illinois College of ACES

URBANA—Soda for breakfast, a burger for lunch and pizza for supper. Intersperse this with vending machine snack food, at least two or three more cans of pop and a late night trip to the kitchen for chips or ice cream, and you’ve got the average teen-ager’s diet.

Where did we go wrong? That’s the question millions of parents ask themselves as they watch their children graze through the mine field of high-fat, high-calorie junk food. Take heart, parents. Research does show that if pre-adolescents are taught healthy nutritional practices, they will return to those practices as adults.

But what about right now? Statistics show that few teens eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Most need to substantially increase their fiber intake, and almost all the girls and half the boys need more calcium and Vitamin D. A huge percentage need less saturated fat and sodium.

As a result, many teens face an increased risk for serious health problems such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and, later in life, osteoporosis.

“But scare tactics don’t work with adolescents,” said Rebecca Roach, a nutrition education coordinator at the University of Illinois. “They think nothing bad will ever happen to them, so development of chronic disease is not a motivating factor for them to improve their nutrition.”

What will motivate a teen-ager? Roach believes their developing curiosity about the world around them can be used to guide their nutritional choices.

“This is a time in life when they’re just beginning to be interested in environmental and political issues,” Roach said.

Introducing teens to organic, locally grown produce sold at farmers’ markets will also introduce them to the concept of sustainable agriculture, as well as make them more aware of what they are consuming and where their food comes from.

But, you say, my teen’s social consciousness doesn’t extend past what she’s going to wear to the mall Friday night. What can I do to make changes in her eating habits?

“Parents have to practice what they preach,” said Roach. “We might think adolescents are out of our control, but if we want to have a real influence on them, we have to show them what we want them to do. We have to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. We have to pattern the behavior we want them to have.”

Roach also suggests the following:

Sit down with the family for a meal at least once a day.

Establish a breakfast, lunch and supper pattern, even if you can’t always eat together. Don’t get in the “grab-and-go” habit.

Don’t pass on a good food/bad food mentality. Grains, fruits and vegetables are the foundation of a good diet, but you also need protein, dairy and a few sweets and fats to be healthy and happy.

Don’t criticize a child’s body type. A child’s weight or size is not the issue. Is he eating enough fruits and vegetables? Is she getting enough exercise? Those are the real issues.

For parents who want more help in determining a proper diet for their children, Roach recommends The American Dietetic Association Web page ( The ADA publishes the Food Guide Pyramid and a variety of other helpful material on nutrition and health.

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