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Teen-agers dwell in food wasteland


It is a good thing that the grocery store in my neighborhood is open 24 hours because I do my shopping late at night these days.

Not because I am busy, although I am that. But because I am ashamed.

School has ended, and with it the 10-hour separation of my children from the refrigerator. Summer vacation is one long snack punctuated by an occasional large snack that might be called a meal. The only time my two teen-agers are not eating is when they are sleeping.

I have taken to doing my grocery shopping in the middle of the night because I don't want to be seen pushing a grocery cart full of items from what my friends and I call the "orange" food group: Doritos, frozen pizza, Kraft macaroni and cheese, Spaghettios, cheese slices and gallons of inexpensive sugar water colored orange.

My kids -- and the friends who keep showing up at our basketball hoop -- are in the middle of the most rapid and dramatic growth spurt in their lives, and they require more calories and nutrients than they ever have or ever will again.

Unfortunately, this dramatic stage coincides with incredibly bad eating habits.

Teens are independent enough to prepare their own meals and snacks, and their choices reflect both their contrariness and their haste.

When they are hungry, they are starved. They can't conceive of spending the time to cut up a fruit salad. Besides, that's what we'd want them to do, and you can guess how they feel about that.

Also, teens eat more of their meals away from home, which is why my son's friend Paul is such a fixture at the McDonald's drive-through window.

Teens don't need a car to exercise their own food choices. A phone will do. I didn't even know the sub shop delivered to our neighborhood pool.

Teens need more protein because muscle mass and blood volume will double during this developmental phase, but all they want is carbohydrates because the starch and sugars quell those terrible hunger pangs quickly, if only for a little while.

Their skeletal system is only at about one-half the adult mass, but more often than not they choose soda over milk. Not only does this reduce the amount of calcium they receive, but the carbonation also contributes to bone loss.

Never in their lives will our children need to eat better, yet never will they eat more poorly.

There is plenty of evidence that our sedentary, snacking teens are fat -- twice the number of kids are obese or overweight as in 1980.

But more alarming is a report from the American College of Cardiology that teens with poor diets are showing signs of heart disease and high blood pressure. Their arteries are as clogged as those of a 40-year-old.

What's a mother to do?

Harvard researchers reported in the March issue of the Archives of Family Medicine that children age 9 to 14 who eat a family dinner are more likely than their peers to consume fruits and vegetables and less likely to drink soda or eat high-fat or sugary foods.

The study showed that the kids consumed a slightly higher number of calories at the family dinner but also had a higher intake of fiber and many nutrients.

But while almost half of the 9-year-olds ate dinner with their families, only about a third of the 14-year-olds did so.

Much has been made of the role of the family dinner in maintaining healthy communication between parents and kids and reducing the possibility of kids making dangerous lifestyle choices.

I thought that meant drinking, drugs and sex. I guess it means soda, chips and cookies, too.

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