Every day, we’re told how important eating a variety of fruits and vegetables is for optimum wellness. We hear that they can help reduce the risks of many diseases, including certain forms of cancer, and we know that they help manage weight. But are our teenagers hearing the same messages we’re hearing?
Apparently not, according to a study released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Researchers analyzed data from 10,765 high school students (from both public and private schools) who were part of the 2010 National Youth Physical Activity and Nutrition Study, and the results were alarming.
Respondents were asked how often they consumed fruits and vegetables during a one-week period (defined as whole fruit, 100% fruit juice, green salad, potatoes, carrots, and other vegetables), and on average, the teenagers ate both only 1.2 times per day.
This is a far cry from the daily recommended amounts for adolescents who participate in less than 30 minutes of physical activity daily: 1.5 cups of fruit and 2.5 cups of vegetables for females, and 2 cups of fruit and 3 cups of vegetables for males (1 cup is approximately equal to one medium apple, eight strawberries, 12 baby carrots, or one large tomato).
Nearly a third of students reported eating fruit and vegetables less than once daily. Only 16.8% of teens ate fruit at least 4 or more times daily and 11.2% ate vegetables 4 or more times daily.
Gender and Ethnic Differences
Male students ate slightly more fruits than female students, consuming fruit 1.4 times daily versus 1.2 times, respectively. Consumption of vegetables was more equal, with males consuming vegetables 1.2 times per day and females 1.3 times per day.
Vegetable consumption was lowest amongst Hispanic and black students. Non-Hispanic black students reported eating vegetables an average of once daily, and Hispanic students reported a frequency of 1.1 times daily.
The Age Factor
Fruit consumption also seemed to drop off with age – students in 9th grade reported consuming fruit 1.4 times per day, and this figure decreased to 1.2 in 10th grade, 1.3 in 11th grade, and 1.2 in 12th grade. Consumption of vegetables remained relatively stable, albeit low, with 9th to 11th graders eating their veggies 1.3 times per day, and 12th graders only 1.2 times per day.
What to Do?
While the study does not delve into the reasons why teenagers don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, it’s clear that something needs to be done to keep our kids healthy.
The study “highlights the need for effective strategies to increase consumption,” with a particular focus on policy and environment. Programs such as Let’s Move!, Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, and the CDC’s own Communities Putting Prevention to Work are merely a start.
More exposure to different, healthy foods via school and community gardens as well as farmer’s markets can familiarize students with foods they might not normally eat. And pushing for schools to provide access to healthy foods (salad bars aren’t just for adults!) is an obvious way to influence students’ choices, since researcher Sonia Kim reminds us that “there is evidence that salad bars do increase fruit and vegetable consumption among children.”
The Bottom Line
The news on the health of our nation’s children is dismal. Just last month, a study presented at the American Heart Association Scientific Session in Orlando revealed that teens are more likely to die of heart disease at a younger age than adults do today.
In that study, researchers found that many of today’s children and adolescents have high blood sugar levels, are obese or overweight, have a lousy diet and don’t get enough physical exercise. What the scientists found most alarming is that none of the kids in the study met the criteria for ideal cardiovascular health.
Unfortunately, these habits develop at a very early age. In another recent study, researchers found that poor dietary patterns develop as early as 12 to 24 months. Young children do not consume enough vegetables or whole grains, and they consume far too many calories from solid fats and sugars. In the U.S., 10 percent of young children aged 2 to 5 are categorized as obese!
A study published in the December issue of Pediatrics indicates that today’s kindergarteners are heavier than kids brought up in the 1970s and 1980s and are on the road to becoming overweight and obese in years to come. According to study authors, even those kids who are at normal weight are gaining weight.
What’s a parent to do when we live in an obesogenic society? Set a good example. While words are important, kids learn far more from actions. That means as a parent, providing your children with healthy meals and snacks and teaching them the benefit of nutritious eating. Showing kids (boys and girls) how to make healthy meals is also important. This takes more time and effort, but it’s so important to their long-term health.
Once kids become teenagers, it becomes far more difficult to control what they eat. However, by teaching them healthy habits at a young age, teens have a greater likelihood of returning to their healthy roots as they mature into adulthood.
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.