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The Effects of Fast Food on Teen Health

How Fast Food Contributes to Health Related Problems Among Teens

Time constraints, parents who work outside the home, extracurricular activities and social obligations; these are just a few of the reasons teens have developed a need for a quick meal or an "on the go" snack. Fast food, microwave-in-a-minute meals, meals on the go, and heat-n-eat are just a few of the marketing gimmicks that have appealed to households everywhere. Meals that once used to take hours to prepare now can be done in a fraction of the time, allowing teens to continue to be on the go. Have these types of meals affected teen's health and eating habits? You bet your burrito.

Issues affecting teen's health related to eating habits and weight have become forefront in medical news. As teens continue to eat on the run, their health continues to run out of control. " Obesity has increased 54 percent in the last 20 years resulting in 25 to 30 percent of teens being obese -- and the number is accelerating," says Susan Burke, a certified nutritionist from New York City, N.Y. "In addition, type II diabetes in children is an emerging epidemic. And as it is no surprise that type II diabetes is directly related to being overweight."

Why are Teens Eating so Badly?

Several factors of the average teens life must come into play to find the explanation. "There is no one reason, otherwise fixing the problem would be easy," Burke says. "The main factors that affect a teen's diet can be found at school, at home and in their lifestyle. Oftentimes it is not just one factor but a combination of two or more that attribute to a teen's poor diet."

Vending machines and fast food venues in school cafeterias, combined with the minimal amount of time teens have for lunch, contributes to the problem. "The school cafeterias are bringing in outside vendors -- not just vending machines, but fast food outlets now have a place in school cafeterias as well," says Burke. "A lot of schools actually have Pizza Hut, they have Dominos and they have Burger King and so on in the schools themselves. Add in the aspect of the decrease in time that teens have for lunch -- some have as little as 15 minutes for lunch. They are using vending machines as they are quicker and offer a shorter waiting time to get their lunch or taking advantage of the fast food venues that are in the schools today."

"In order to get a good place in the lunch line to make sure I can get my lunch, I have to run -- literally," says Alec Shoemaker, an eighth grader from Chester, Va. "But if my class is late getting out or I'm late getting to the cafeteria, I have to wait up to 15 minutes just to get my lunch. Then, after waiting in line, I have about five minutes to eat it. So, it's easier to just put some coins in the vending machines and be able to sit down to eat it all without having to hurry. Most kids don't even get lunch because there isn't enough time."

To combat the threat of school lunches attributing to the deficiencies in the American teen's diet, parents could choose to have teens "pack" or take their lunch to school. By bringing their own lunch, they no longer need to wait in a long line which decreases the amount of time they have to eat. Thermal lunch boxes, thermoses and lunch-box-size ice packs make it possible to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold allowing a wider variety of foods to be chosen and taken for a healthy, well-balanced school lunch.

Many families today require one or more likely, both parents to work outside the home. With deadlines, quotas and overtime, it is not uncommon for parents to pick up or order out dinner in an attempt to save time. "Another thing that contributes to a teen not eating a healthy diet is the whole phenomenon of the two working parent family," Burke says. "[The USDA] has done a lot of research showing that in the families of teens who eat together do end up eating a more nutritious, well-balanced meal. Less and less parents eat dinner with their kids. A lot of this has to do with the fact that there are so many latchkey kids in our society. Only 50 percent of American families eat dinner together nightly. It's not only the morning meals that the latchkey kids are getting on their own -- and the breakfast is usually chips and soda -- but it's the evening meals as well."

"It's tough to make sure kids are eating well when you have to leave the house before them every morning and after them every night," says Carrie Eichler, a nurse and mother of three from Ashland, Ohio. "They want the types of things that taste good but are easy for them to make. I try to get them what they want and what they need, but it's hard to find things that have both taste and nutrition and are still easy for them to prepare. It's a struggle -- for all of us."

Set An Example

Even parents that work can help to ensure that their teens are eating healthy foods and well-balanced meals. By knowing what is in the cupboards and refrigerator even when your not at home, parents can ensure that they teens will have nutritious foods to choose from when required to prepare their own meals.

"The number one thing that parents can do is to set an example," Burke says. "Setting example means that the parents themselves are following a healthy meal plan and shopping healthfully. Number two is that you have to shop for health and for healthy foods. Stock the shelves and the fridge with low-fat cheeses and yogurts, fruits and vegetables. One of the best things a kid can do growing up doing is substituting soda and juice for milk -- even if it's chocolate milk. Low-fat chocolate milk is a better choice then juice or soda. It's a matter of choices."

According to the USDA, two-thirds of teens do not get enough zinc or vitamin E, one-half do not get enough calcium and one-third do not get enough iron or vitamin B6. Of American teenage girls, 75 percent do not get enough iron. Parents can equipped themselves with this knowledge and offer their children better choices, better options and better health.

"There is an old saying that says 'knowledge is power,'" Burke says. "It is especially true when it comes to parents helping their teens eat well and eat right. Gain the knowledge of what teens need -- vitamins, iron, calcium and a well-balanced diet -- and you gain the knowledge to give them a great gift -- good health."

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