9 Out of 10 Teens Aren't Eating a Healthy Diet

Love junk food? You're not the only one. Nine out of ten teens aren't getting the fruits and veggies that constitute a healthy diet.

I don't eat fruit during the winter, and during the summer I'll maybe eat it once a day, if at all," admits eighteen-year-old Marisa from New Jersey. Rachel, 20, from North Carolina, has a similar confession: "I haven't had vegetables in a freakishly long time! My school offers prepackaged salads, but it's easier just to grab a Pop-Tart and a Diet Coke before running to class." According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Marisa's and Rachel's food-for-thought attitudes are common. Their research found that only a meager 9.5 percent of high school students in the United States eat two or more servings of fruit and three or more servings of vegetables a day, which are the amounts recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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Low consumption of these foods robs teens' growing bodies of essential nutrients, says Virginia A. Stallings, M.D., director of the Nutrition Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "Many of the vitamins and minerals your body needs are found in fruits and vegetables, and they're important for everything from developing muscle tone and being fit to having healthy hair and skin," she notes. Furthermore, filling up on high-fat and sugary junk food is causing teens health problems that are normally associated with adults. "There are studies that look at the autopsy results of teens who died suddenly, and the researchers could already see a hardening of their arteries due to plaque buildup. It's a condition called atherosclerosis--we usually don't see it this early. Diets high in saturated fats contribute to your blood vessels' getting clogged up, which can cause heart attacks later in life," says Lisa Chamberlain, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of pediatrics at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital in Palo Alto, California. "We're also diagnosing Type 2 diabetes (formerly known as adult-onset diabetes) more often in adolescents."

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Teens aren't wholly to blame, however. School meals play a big role in how kids eat, and 76 percent of high schools currently serve lunches that are too high in saturated fat, according to the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. Furthermore, 42 percent don't provide fresh fruit and raw vegetables to their students on a daily basis. Stallings is currently working on revamping the National School Lunch Program and assures that strong efforts are being made to improve the nutritional value of cafeteria breakfasts and lunches.

Food advertisements also affect young people's eating habits, Chamberlain notes. "Teens are a major niche market for the food industry, so restaurant, soda, and snack companies are constantly sending out messages to them in the media, which is why it's not totally surprising that they're picking unhealthy items come lunchtime," she says. But teens should take charge of their own dietary decisions by adopting an empowered attitude toward eating, says Stallings. "Ask yourself, 'How can I make food choices that will help me?' " she stresses. Try adding a handful of berries to your yogurt or cereal in the morning, or stuff your lunch sandwich with an extra helping of your favorite vegetables. "See how many different colors of fruits and veggies you can get into your diet during the day," suggests Los Angeles-based dietician Ashley Koff, R.D. Every healthy choice makes a positive difference. Says Chamberlain, "Your body changes because of what you're eating, so eat smart!"

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