When I attend school functions and sporting events, I notice that many of the kids are carrying extra weight. Some are just carrying a few extra pounds. Others are already struggling with full-fledged obesity. Often parents will dismiss an adolescent weight problem as "just baby fat." If "the baby" is 12 or older, it isn't baby fat! Clearly we have a crisis on our hands. But we parents can still do something about it.
Today's kids are not educated about nutrition or physical activity in the way they should be. In past generations, this wasn't as much of a problem because most meals were prepared at home, portion sizes were smaller, and there weren't nearly as many options for fast foods and packaged convenience foods. Before the invention of the minivan, kids were more likely to walk or bike to see their friends. Before the invention of cable television and the video game, kids were more likely to entertain themselves in non-sedentary ways.
Today's food marketers are also far more sophisticated and shrewd than they used to be. Food companies now deliberately direct their advertising toward kids, hoping to profit from the "pester power" that kids have on their parents. And these marketers know all too well that the teen years are when kids themselves are experiencing their own earning power and spending power for the first time.
Even adults will fall for promises of "wholesome, healthy flavor" on packages containing little more than sugar, saturated fat, and salt. Our kids are even more susceptible.
The cost of modern convenience foods is high. We consume loads of unhealthy fats, sugars, salts and chemicals that are added to give foods longer shelf lives. These additives make foods easier to prepare, faster to cook, better tasting, and readily accessible any time of day. So they fit into our time-starved lifestyle very easily. Unfortunately, they make it more difficult to fit into our jeans!
Although these unhealthy shortcut foods are a problem for the whole family, teens are especially at risk. They have money in their pockets from part-time jobs and friends with brand-new driver's licenses so they're eating away from home more than ever before. They're faced with a confusing array of physical changes, emotional issues and social pressures. And they are inundated with advertising that makes fast food seem cool and fun.
It's contradictory and cruel that the media encourages our teens to try some new giant fast food breakfast sandwich with 1,400 calories and 140 grams of fat -- while it's inundated with air-brushed, digitally altered images of slim, glowing, gorgeous celebrities and models. The unattainable extremes of size zero Hollywood starlets and steroid-enhanced athletes, combined with the all-too-attainable extremes of 1,400-calorie breakfast sandwiches, are creating an epidemic of eating disorders among teens.
Furthermore, today's teenagers, who are eating and drinking twice as many calories as their parents did at their age, may not be getting the nutrients they need. So they're not only fat, they're malnourished as well.
So what's a parent to do?