Helping Teens Establish Healthy Eating Habits

There are so many things that parents of teenagers have to worry about that the list can feel endless and overwhelming.  Peer pressure and bullying.  Drugs and alcohol.  Sexual activity, STDs, and teen pregnancy.  Grades.  Mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and suicide.    Most of these have been on parent’s radars in one form or another for decades.  But today’s parents also have to worry about things that their parents and grandparents never did, such as obesity, diabetes, and lack of physical activity.

The obesity rate amongst American adolescents has tripled since today’s parents were children and teens.  More than 15% of 6-19 year olds are overweight according to the American Diabetes Association.  Being overweight in adolescence comes with a host of problems.  While teenagers in past generations would likely cite social issues as the biggest problem overweight teens faced, today’s teens have to deal with that and more.

A study published in the journal Pediatrics found that there was a correlation between body mass index (BMI) and bullying activity.  Those teens with higher than average BMI were more likely than their peers with a normal BMI to be bullied or be the victim of aggressive behavior.  In addition to the social consequences, which can be significant and impact the rest of the teen’s life, there are also serious health consequences.  According to an article published in the New York Times, nearly one in four adolescents in this country are diabetic or on the verge of developing type II diabetes.   This is a staggering statistic considering that a mere ten years ago that figure was one in ten.

However, there is good news for parents.  When it comes to weight, you can make a real difference and there are new tools from the USDA that can help.  In recent years, the federal guidelines for what constitutes a healthy diet have changed.  The new program, Choose My Plate, provides guidelines for how to use the five food groups to ensure a healthy and balanced diet.  Because the program provides these guidelines in a friendly, easy to understand format, it is easy for teenagers to learn and use these skills in their daily lives.

The first thing parents can do is to set a good example.  If your teenager is having trouble maintaining a healthy weight, take a step back and look at the relationship you and the rest of the family have to food.  Showing your teen how to eat healthy provides them with a model to follow.  You also want to look at the kind of food that is available to your teen.  If your kitchen cupboards are full of sweet snacks and soda, and family dinner often involves a fast food menu, you will need to make adjustments so that your teen has the ability to follow a healthy diet.  If they don’t have access to the food they need or are surrounded by food sure to sabotage their best efforts, they may be giving their best effort to eat healthy but lack the support to do so.

You can also work together to use some of the new tools available from the USDA that have been designed to help people follow the My Plate guidelines.   The SuperTracker, which helps you plan and analyze your eating habits, is one of these tools which are both free and easy to use.  They can be found on the USDA’s Choose My Plate site.

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