A few lessons for teen-agers about food

THE BALTIMORE SUN

We know. The last thing a teen-ager wants is for an adult to start yakking about nutrition and what you ought to be eating and blah blah blah. Boring!

So we'll restrain our urge to lecture and instead just share some information from experts that may be new to you -- and to your parents. That way, the more you know, the smarter your food choices will be.

In talking with teens about food, a few things come up over and over again:

* You tend to skip breakfast, either because you get up too late to eat it or it just doesn't appeal to you. Or you think it will make you fat.

* You don't like to eat lunch at the school cafeteria -- it's what little kids do, and you don't like the food.

* You eat at McDonald's, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Burger King and other fast-food palaces or mall food courts a lot.

* A lot of you are really concerned about being thin, and you may see yourselves as fat, even if you're not.

* Some of you are becoming vegetarians, not because of concerns about your health but as a statement about animal rights.

* A lot of teens eat a steady diet of sodas and junk food, or they focus too much on diet and not enough on exercise and total lifestyle. This can result in not giving your body the fuel it needs to grow and be healthy and strong.

Teen years = time to grow

Food is especially important between the ages of about 10 and 18 because that's when your body is growing in high gear.

During puberty -- the five- to seven-year span when your body changes from that of a child to that of an adult -- you'll gain about 50 percent of your eventual adult body weight. The only other times you grew so fast were as a developing fetus inside your mother's uterus and during infancy, the first year of your life.

Girls, according to studies, can grow up to 9 inches between ages 9 1/2 and 16 and see their percentage of body fat increase from 19 to 23 percent. This is normal, but it happens so fast it's easy to feel like you're losing control of your body and getting fat and hideous. This can lead some kids into really weird notions about weight control, like bingeing and purging or exercising for five hours a day or getting really obsessed about eating only lettuce.

L Boys can grow up to 10 inches taller during the same period.

Sheah Rarback, a registered dietitian who specializes in kids and nutrition in her work at the University of Miami's Mailman Center, says "It's just a lot happening in a short period of time. It would be hard to keep track of your body. It's growing so quickly."

Her advice to parents on influencing their teens to eat well: "You do the best you can but don't go crazy over it."

Figuring that she'd know more about this than just about anybody, we called Sassy magazine senior writer Marjorie Ingall, who's in charge of the Body Talk column in the magazine.

At Sassy, editors try to put looks into perspective and present exercise as something you do for fun.

It's a matter of self-esteem

"All these issues are tied to self-esteem," says Ms. Ingall. "Girls who feel it's OK and legit to be smart, that guys will respect them for speaking up, I think those are the girls who are able to step back and have a little perspective about food. I think it's the girls who have decent self-esteem who say, 'I'm not going to let food run my life.' "

When you're a teen and are finding your own ways to be in the world, food can be a place to stand your ground. Says Ms. Ingall: "I think a lot of the world seems really arbitrary to teen-agers." With eating, though, "it's just between you and your corporeal self."

Some free advice:

Here's what experts say about some typical teen eating habits:

* Skipping breakfast: One big reason for not eating breakfast is teens think it'll make them gain weight or make them hungry the rest of the day. No way! Eating breakfast has actually been linked to weight loss or weight control in studies.

Remember, says Ms. Rarback, breakfast "doesn't have to be a bowl of cereal. It can be anything that's appealing." And eating something -- a banana, a cheese sandwich, a slice of leftover pizza, even -- "lets you make better food choices at lunch because you're not starving."

* Skipping lunch: Teens aren't exactly boosters of school cafeteria food, so those who can leave campus at lunch usually do, heading for whatever fast food place is closest or in favor at the moment.

If that's your usual lunch, think for a minute about what you order. Specialty burgers -- double or triple patties of beef, cheese and creamy sauces -- are very high in fat.

Less fattening options would be a plain burger (about 260 calories), a side salad with low-fat dressing or a baked potato (no melted cheese).

If you stay on campus at lunchtime, do eat something. A piece of fruit. A salad from the salad bar. A vegetable plate.

* After-school snacking: By 3 p.m., you'll be hungry, especially if you skipped lunch. So eat what appeals to you, suggests Ms. Rarback. "A snack is just something you eat between meals. It isn't defined by the type of food it is."

How about a yogurt? A shake you make at home with frozen yogurt, skim milk and fruit or chocolate syrup? Fruit? A cheese sandwich?

Talk it over with your mom, so she can buy stuff you'll eat. Maybe some ready-made fruit salad. Maybe leftover pasta you can nuke and eat with grated cheese.

If you get a grip on fat in your diet, you don't have to make yourself crazy counting calories. To teach yourself more about it, check out one of the magazines that emphasizes lower-fat eating, such as Cooking Light (it focuses on fitness, too) or Eating Well.

Better choices

Here are other things to know:

* Turkey breast or chicken breast is a better sandwich stuffer than high-fat bologna or salami. Watch out for tuna salad, too; the mayo adds a lot of fat.

* Choose a low-fat or light dressing at the salad bar. A big ladle of blue cheese or Thousand Island can make a good-for-you salad into a fat-packed disaster.

* Instead of french fries, have a baked potato. Instead of a danish or fat-packed muffin, have a toasted bagel. Instead of a fried chicken breast, have a grilled one.

* Instead of a tiny portion of pasta with cream sauce, have a big plate of noodles with tomato or marinara sauce. Instead of potato chips, reach for pretzels.

* Popcorn's a great snack, but not if it's drenched in melted butter. Microwaving? Pick one of the low-fat, low-salt types.

* Margarine and butter have the same amount of calories; margarine, however, lacks cholesterol.

* If you're in a blue mood, try snacking on a banana, rice, whole-wheat bread or pasta. These carbohydrate-rich foods can HTC increase the brain's level of serotonin, which helps to boost your spirits.

C IS FOR CALCIUM

Calcium is a critical nutrient when you're a teen-ager because that's when you're growing your bones. The stronger your bones are, the better they'll support you through the rest of your life and the less the chances you'll wind up with osteoporosis.

Girls from 11 to 24 need 1,200 milligrams a day of calcium -- a cup of milk has 314 mg.; an 8-ounce container of low-fat vanilla yogurt has 280 to 300 mg.; a 1-ounce slice of swiss cheese has 400. An orange has 52.

Skim milk packs a lot of nutrients without fat. One percent milk is the next best choice. Or, eat nonfat or low-fat yogurt, (including frozen), ice milk or nonfat ice cream or lower-fat cheeses.

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