Teen Diet Isn't All Junk Food

(Jahi Chikwendiu - Twp)

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By January W. Payne
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 31, 2006

A walk through the food court of any mall confirms the worst reports about teens' eating habits: Kids share overflowing cartons of french fries, bite into cheeseburgers and dripping slices of pizza, and quench their thirst with jumbo cups of soda.

Stop and talk to teenagers, though, and many say that they eat junk mainly when they're out of their parents' eyesight, especially when they're hanging out with friends. They have learned what it means to eat healthfully, they say, even though they often don't choose to do so.

Take 17-year-old Porscha Hall, a senior at Ballou Senior High School in the District, who says that she usually skips breakfast and has chips, cookies, candy and soda -- bought from school vending machines -- for lunch. She often goes to a carryout restaurant after school for french fries, fried rice and egg rolls. Dinner at home tends to be much healthier, she says, including baked chicken and rice.

Hall says she knows her mom would prefer that she eat healthier meals. But, she says, "I don't have time to eat healthy," because she attends school during the day and takes classes at night. She predicts that one day, probably when she's done with college, her food choices may matter more to her.

Hall admits that junk food is often the quickest way to satisfy her hunger when she's on the go -- and that's common among busy teenagers, says Felicity Northcott, an anthropologist who does nutrition research at Johns Hopkins University. "I'm not sure that teenagers don't eat healthfully because they don't want to -- particularly teens who are in school, where there is a lot of junk food around," she says. "They just eat whatever is there."

The tension -- between knowing what is bad for you and continuing to do it anyway -- is a key challenge for health professionals. About one-third of American children and adolescents are obese or at risk for obesity, according to a report released in September by the Institute of Medicine; and the obesity rate has more than tripled for those ages 12 to 19 in the past three decades, increasing from 5 percent to 17 percent.

The effects of food choice on weight and, later, chronic disease are also well documented. A 2005 study in the journal Pediatrics found that children ages 9 to 14 who ate more fried foods away from home tended to be heavier. Findings published in 2004 in Obesity Research showed that, among children ages 9 to 14, drinking sugared beverages may contribute to weight gain.

Kids who talk about eating healthfully often say their good habits were established at home. Sajni Patel, a 10th-grader at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, says she's a big fresh-fruit eater -- which is unusual, she admits, for a 15-year-old.

"I love citrus fruit, apples, nectarines, mango," Patel explains. "I will come home around 3 and have a salad [and] vegetables" -- choices she attributes to her parents' mealtime routines.

Rashida Ross, 16, a junior at Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School in the District, admits she enjoys chips, cakes, candy and hot sausages -- but her mom's rule of eating a salad with every meal sticks.

"I'm not a big fried-food eater," Ross says. And her mom typically keeps fresh fruits in the house. But there are also not-so-good-for-you foods. So what would Ross pick given a choice between junk food and fresh fruit? "I'll probably go more for the chips and stuff," Ross admits. "I try to do what my mom does with vegetables and stuff. I know it's good for me. Sometimes I have a choice not to eat a salad, but I'll take it anyway."

As teens prepare to leave home, their parents' influence declines, but it does not disappear. Michael Kellogg, an 18-year-old high school senior from Woodstock, Ga., generally makes his own food selections, he says. But his parents' rules and routines still affect his food choices.

"I guess 40 percent is my own choice and 60 percent is I eat what they eat," he says. "When I'm on the go, I will stop and get fast food."

The transition to college life -- which Kellogg will make next year -- is another challenge. Ajanta Raman, 18, a freshman at William Jewell College in Missouri, describes how she now substitutes breakfast bars for her morning meal and eats protein bars at lunchtime, when she has two classes. But, she says, she has succeeded in taking the eating lessons learned at home with her to college.

"Mom always said to stay away from all the Honey Buns and the really sugary stuff," Raman said. "If it weren't for her, I'd probably be eating a lot more of these sweets and calories."

Other teens report sticking to healthy diets because they -- and their peers -- want to stay in shape. That's the case for Samantha Boddy, 13, of Sarasota, Fla., who loves dancing. She starts out with a smoothie in the morning and eats apples and whole-grain snack bars throughout the day.

"I've always eaten really healthy," said Boddy, attributing that both to her mom and to the influence dance has had on her. If fellow students see a dancer eating a potato chip, she explains, "they'll freak out and say, 'Do you know what that's doing to your body right now, as we're speaking?' " ยท

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