Tom*, 13, has just started high school and he’s got his eye on the cafeteria. “I want to try everything.” And that has his mom, Linda James*, worried. With three kids in high school, she knows the allure of fast — often fattening — foods for teens, but the older they get, she says, the harder it is to ensure they have a balanced diet. “I try to present different food groups at home, but they don’t want them.”
Her 15-year-old daughter gravitates to the pasta and pastries from the café where she works part-time. Her eldest son is a “carnivore,” avoiding most everything green. Her 13-year-old can’t say no to pop, slushies and milkshakes, but he’s already paying a price. “He now suffers from exercise-induced asthma,” says Linda, who is also concerned about diabetes.
She’s right to be concerned, says registered dietitian Melanie Rozwadowski, assistant professor in the division of nutrition and dietetics at the University of Saskatchewan.
Mo<“Weight gain is only one issue,” says Rozwadowski. “Classic fast food (burgers, fries, pop, chips) is high in saturated and trans fats. Regardless of total calorie intake, these fats contribute to heart disease.” And it doesn’t stop there. “The chronic diseases plaguing North Americans — heart disease, some cancers, type II diabetes, osteoporosis — begin as pediatric problems and take decades to develop in most cases,” says Rozwadowski. “Young people don’t even think about tomorrow, never mind 20 years from now.”
So what can parents do? Have regular meals together, says Rozwadowski. “Teens who eat with their families, even if it’s just one meal a day, have a lower risk of all these conditions and have a much healthier diet overall.” Also, invite your teen to help you make decisions around food and ask him to go grocery shopping with you. And instead of stocking up on chips and cookies, prepare a platter of washed veggies or bowls of nuts and fruit, so when the kids come blasting through the house with their friends, healthy snacks are out in plain view. However, the single most important thing a parent can do is eat well yourself, says Rozwadowski. “If you aren’t eating healthy foods, your kids won’t either.”
Mary Teresa Bitti is the mother of a 15-year-old son who views home-made vegetable soup as a particularly harsh form of punishment.
Tips for swapping your teen’s fast food faves
Teen pick: Tim Hortons chocolate chip muffin (430 calories, 16 g of fat)
Better choice: Tim Hortons low fat blueberry muffin (290 calories, 2.5 g of fat)
Nutritionist says: You might be surprised how many grams of fat a muffin has. “If it’s something sweet you’re after, you have to think what a reasonable substitute might be, like a whole-grain bagel (300 calories, 3 g of fat) with one tablespoon of jam (150 calories, 0 g fat) or honey (60 calories, 0 g fat), because it is lower in fat than a donut, cookie or muffin.”
Teen pick: Pizza Hut Pepperoni Lover’s pizza 12-inch slice (310 calories, 13 g fat)
Better choice: Pizza Hut Veggie Lover’s pizza 12-inch slice (240 calories, 7 g fat)
Nutritionist says: “First, ask for half cheese when you order and load up on veggies,” says Rozwadowski. “Instead of a meat-loaded pizza, pick one favourite meat topping. Some chains now offer veggie pepperoni, and peameal (Canadian) bacon has much less fat than standard bacon.” In addition, order a whole-grain crust if it’s an option.
Teen pick: Subway 6-inch Cold Cut Combo (with cheese) (460 calories, 23 g fat)
Better choice: Subway 6-inch Turkey Breast and Ham (with cheese) (360 calories, 12 g of fat)
Nutritionist says: “Here you have access to a fantastic meal, if you make the right selections,” says Rozwadowski. “Opt for whole-grain buns, mustard over mayo and ham or turkey versus pepperoni, salami or meatballs, which have a much higher fat content. Then load it up with colourful, raw vegetables.”
Teen pick: McDonald’s Big Mac and large French fries (1,090 calories, 56 g fat)
Better choice: McDonald’s Hamburger and small French fries (470 calories, 19 g fat)
Nutritionist says: It’s far better for your teen to order a basic hamburger with a little ketchup and mustard — no fatty sauces or additions like bacon or cheese. “Anything grilled is much healthier than anything deep-fried,” says Rozwadowski. “And instead of fries, opt for a baked potato, or better still, a side salad.”
* Names have been changed.*