Most children and young adults, after 12 years old, have the ability to knowingly choose foods that are healthy for them. However, the choices they make as teenagers are often rooted in their experiences much earlier in life.
“Parents have a window of opportunity with younger kids to set them up for a lifetime of healthy eating by offering healthy food choices and talking about nutritional value,” explained Edmund Pezalla, M.D., M.P.H., vice president and national medical director of Pharmaceutical Policy and Strategy at Aetna. “But if the kids are raised on a diet of junk food and sugary drinks, they are far more likely to make those choices even when better food is available.”
This cycle may be why extreme obesity among 12 to 19 years has more than tripled in one generation.
Convenience tips the scales, particularly for teenagers
Research shows more people are buying fresh food for the nutritional value, however the convenience of pre-packaged food still has huge appeal among teenagers and busy parents with young children. “It makes complete sense that the time-starved parent or the busy teenager is going to try to streamline daily activities just to fit it all in,” Pezalla said.
Food companies understand that, and fortunately have added many more healthy choices to their lineup of grab-and-go food. But it still comes down to conscious choices. “It takes the same amount of time to put carrots and apples in the grocery cart as it does to add the latest sugary snack,” Pezalla noted.
Family dynamics can make it hard to change habits if only one or two members of the household are working at it.
Habits start young
Children as young as 10 to 12 years old can make food choice decisions based on complex reasoning to figure out what the better, healthier options are, Pezalla said. He adds, however, that this age group isn’t quite cognizant of the long-term consequences of what they eat just yet.
“As the kids grow up, parents gradually exert less control over what their kids eat, particularly when they become teenagers. Setting a good example and talking about nutrition throughout the earlier years can set them up to make smart choices.”
Multi-tasking is also a factor in forming unhealthy diet habits, he said. “We eat when we drive, when we watch TV, when we are using social media, and so on. That relegates eating to a side activity, so it’s easy to overlook how much we are consuming.”
Given that the average 8 to 18 year-old spends almost 8 hours a day interacting with entertainment media, Pezalla suggested finding as little as 20 minutes to focus on eating a healthy meal would make a difference in overall family health.
Exercise: the other side of a healthy diet
When First Lady Michelle Obama launched the national “Let’s Move” initiative in 2010, she said, “The physical and emotional health of an entire generation, and the economic health and security of our nation, is at stake.”
Children and teenagers should get 60 minutes a day of play with moderate to vigorous activity each day.
Physical activity is at once the challenge and the solution to raising a healthy generation, Pezalla noted. The Let’s Move initiative described the shift over the last 30 years: Walks to and from school have been replaced by car and bus rides. Gym class and after-school sports have been cut; afternoons are now spent with TV, video games, and the internet. Parents are busier than ever and families eat fewer home-cooked meals. Snacking between meals is now commonplace.
Health as a family value
Family dynamics can make it hard to change habits if only one or two members of the household are working at it. Pezalla suggests that families work together to create a supportive environment. “No one wants to be singled out – it can produce feelings of shame and reinforce negative self-perception,” he said. “Better health begins at home, with every member of the household engaged in supporting each other and modeling the behavior that leads to health over a lifetime. That social support, coupled with a good example set by parents, is the key.”
For additional resources, check out Let’s Move and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).