The Issue Surrounding Teen Nutrition

By Lily Bourne

Surrounded by fast food restaurants, highly processed meals, and deceptive information, all while balancing their turbulent teenage years, high school students can easily deprioritize maintaining a healthy diet. When college applications and entering the adult world loom on the horizon, does one visit to In N Out really matter in the long run? And for that matter, should teenagers even attempt to adjust their eating habits if they feel content with where they are? Many high school students who do take steps towards improving their diet easily fall into even more unhealthy habits, or run into a cost barrier. The question then stands: Is eating healthy really that practical to achieve, especially for teenagers, in our current society? And if it is, should we even try?

To understand the significance of this problem, we need to examine the current state of American teenagers’ diets. Spoiler alert, they aren’t great. The American Heart Association (AHA) reports that ultra-processed foods–like chips, cookies, and pizza–make up two-thirds of the average American adolescent’s diet. This common dietary habit correlates to worse heart health later on in life and also leaves less opportunity for kids to consume important nutrients in the form of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and unprocessed meats. The CDC has also discovered that 20.6% of teenagers are considered obese. These statistics could go on forever. 

Evidently, we have a severe problem within the United States in regard to the average diet of adolescents. However, unhealthy habits also contribute to this growing issue. Speaking to fellow classmates, not one eyebrow is raised when a peer mentions they haven’t eaten breakfast that morning. In fact, many students take this as a sort of challenge, eliciting responses the likes of “Oh really? Yesterday I didn’t eat a meal all day,” and “You think that’s bad? I haven’t eaten breakfast in years!” Although many teenagers may be fully prepared with valid reasons for their questionable diet choices, science says otherwise. Numerous studies indicate the importance of eating three full meals every day, as well as drinking much more water and getting enough physical activity. However, circling back to our question of whether eating healthy is practical to achieve, experts point to yes. Even while juggling busy schedules, sports practices, work, school, and friendships, it is very possible to continue living a healthy life! I know, easier said than done. But Toni Toledo, a nutritional care manager and dietician, is here to help. When asked for her recommendations on what busy teens can realistically do to improve their diet, she explains;

I urge and encourage my clients to focus on one thing at a time.  For some that might be working toward eating more fruits and vegetables. Start by trying new fruits and veggies in new ways…ways that you enjoy and that can ADD to your current routine.   Instead of focusing on what you SHOULD do (guidelines say at least 5 servings a day)…start where you are.  If you currently only eat one apple during study hall and some salad at dinner just start there and try for one more serving, like maybe some carrots and hummus after school or a yogurt and berries in the evening…something small.  A small step. Or, let’s say you eat fast food on most days of the week–instead of saying “NO more fast food–challenge yourself to eat at least one more meal at home this week and see how you feel. Focusing on how you feel can make a huge difference and can reinforce the behavior changes you want to incorporate.  There is a term called “interoception: the hidden sense that shapes wellbeing” and it can be used with eating behaviors. This means to focus on how the food tastes and how it makes you feel and allows us to be more intuitive and more mindful as we eat.  This is a game changer and can add so much to your healthier eating journey. It is a journey. Take one step at a time and see what you can do for you to feel your best eating foods that taste good and make you feel good.

Now that a consensus has been reached—eating healthy is in fact possible for teens—the second half of our inquiry remains: is it worth it for teenagers to try to fix their nutritional habits? Healthy eating represents a slippery slope, with potential detriments including mental health issues and cost inefficiency. When discussing any kind of behavioral change, the possibility of going overboard always remains constant. Although making smart nutritional choices is important, especially for teens, overly restricting one’s intake of calories or certain types of food becomes dangerous incredibly quickly. A study done by Canada’s National Library of Medicine found that one-half of all teenage girls and one-quarter of all teenage boys have modified their diet in order to change the shape of their bodies. When attempting to make healthy choices turns into adolescents feeling guilty about the foods they eat, or excessively exercising in order to “make up” for a bad meal, these behaviors are known as eating disorders. Although studies have shown that restrictive dieting and unhealthily exercising do not benefit the body, and actually lead to worse overall health, teens still feel drawn to these addictive habits. As mentioned before, a fine line forms between making conscious decisions in order to improve your overall nutrition and making rash decisions in an effort to feel better in the moment. Clearly, choosing to eat healthy must be a careful decision made with research and deliberation—not things the average teenager always has time for. 

Unsurprisingly, when digging deeper into the cause of America’s current health crisis, multinational corporations sit snugly at the center. Companies like McDonalds, Burger King, and Taco Bell profit immensely from Americans’ obsession with fast food. Unfortunately, this creates a cycle in which an increased demand for the food allows prices to drop, bringing even more demand for these high-fat, high-sodium, high-sugar menu items, which in turn continues to keep the businesses competitive and incredibly cheap. Importantly, companies keep their options open. Just as they profit off of unhealthy, convenient food options, the same companies profit off of diet culture, selling products labeled as low-fat, low-sugar, low-calorie, and so on. Although these options may truly be healthier than their alternatives, it is essential to be aware of these corporations’ goal: not to make their consumers healthy, but rather to make the most money possible. Thus, these corporations continue to thrive and profit off of less fortunate demographics. In another instance, studies have shown that people who are busy tend to purchase more fast food rather than spend the time to visit a restaurant or purchase ingredients for home-cooked meals. This may seem obvious, but interestingly, higher fast food intake was not correlated with lower-income households. It is clear then, that the problem stems from a lack of time, not a lack of funds. This also explains why teenagers are more likely to consume fast food. After all, teenage years are a pretty busy time. 

In this way, we can understand the barriers surrounding nutritional eating. It isn’t as simple as having a salad for lunch instead of a slice of pizza or cutting down on sugar intake. Even those who attempt to make real changes might easily fall victim to the rabbit hole of diet culture, coming out worse off than they started. However, these problems can be avoided. Discussing with Toni Toledo again, she describes the root of teenagers’ nutrition problems and the best way to solve them;

As with so many things in Life, the way people address and profess the BEST way to be healthy can be divisive.   Of course, there are myriad ways to approach health and nutrition and the issues you addressed above are all very important, very serious, and can be daunting as well.   It may seem like a futile endeavor to even attempt to eat in a healthy way at all.  Why bother?  But I feel that it is worth the “bother”  and in my work, I try to change the mindset from a “bother” which feels negative and a task, chore, or burden to a positive approach.   For my entire career, I have been working to inspire, motivate, educate, and empower my clients to look for positive “to-do” behaviors or habits that help them feel good and thus impact health. I like the “Add-in” approach. So what does this mean? Well, it means different things to different people.  It is really important to me that my clients work to discover custom tools and approaches that work for them now and that can be sustainable over time.  Healthy behaviors and habits work when they become the fabric of our lives…not “flash in the pan” short-term behaviors. If you feel overwhelmed by the statistics and the “state of the adolescent health and nutrition” you might be paralyzed by it, overwhelmed, and feel like it is not worth it to even try to invest in you and your health—but believe me, it is worth it. You are worth it. 

Clearly, with the right tools and mindset, it is possible to lead a healthy life, even during your busy teenage years. Toledo says it best, “All foods fit and there is no right or wrong way to do things when it comes to nutrition and health. The best way is your way and you need to find it.”