Make Over Your Teen's Diet

If you take a peek at what the average teen eats every day you won't see a very pretty or healthy picture. Fortunately, some simple swaps will ensure your child is properly fueled during these all-important years.


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What teens typically eat in a day...

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Too many calories
This kid has taken in a total of 3,358 calories—reasonable for some extremely active teens, but way too much for most.


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Not enough calcium

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As intake of soft drinks goes up, calcium consumption goes down. This is worrisome since about half of all the bone mass we have as adults is formed during the teen years. Research from the University of Minnesota finds that only 30% of teen girls and 42% of teen boys consume the recommended 1,300mg of calcium per day (this menu contains only 881mg).


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An infusion of salt

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The 4,600mg of sodium in this day's menu is more than triple what's recommended (1,500mg per day). About three-quarters of the sodium in teens' diets shows up in prepared or processed foods (like fries). Only about 11% is added during cooking or via the saltshaker at the table.


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Not enough fiber

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Teen girls need at least 26g of fiber a day and boys 31 to 38g for sustained energy, normal digestion and reduced risk of cancer. This menu contains only 18g (just 2g in the bagel). The more highly processed foods kids eat, the less fiber they take in from whole grains, fruits and veggies.


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Too few fruits and veggies

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Only a few items (OJ, fries, chips) even come close to counting as a fruit or vegetable, and they're high in sugar or fat. (The pickles on the burger offer little nutritional value.) And these items are surely not what the USDA had in mind with its "five a day" recommendation.


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A pile of sugar

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About 43 teaspoons can be found in soft drinks, ice cream, and other sweets. To prevent obesity, no more than 10% of teens' daily calories (only 12 to 17 teaspoons, or 50 to 70g) should come from added sugar.


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Too much fat

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This teen's taking in a staggering 141g of fat (58g saturated). Only 30% (about 90g) of kids' total calories should come from fat and just 10% (about 30g) from saturated fats found in meat and cheese products.


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What they should be eating instead...

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Fewer calories
With 2,660 total calories, this menu is within the target range for active teens (boys who exercise vigorously can increase portion sizes to come closer to 3,000 calories).


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More fiber, fruits and vegetables

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Replacing the bagel with a whole wheat English muffin and multigrain cereal, and adding more raw fruits and vegetables throughout the menu, brought the day's fiber into a healthy range (46g) and achieved the goal of at least five fruits and vegetables.


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Less sodium

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Reduced by about a third, this menu still has more sodium (3,000mg) than recommended (blame the pizza, which contributes about 1,500mg). Eating more meals at home prepared with fresh ingredients is a great way to keep sodium levels under control.


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Better fat

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Pizza, burgers and dessert can remain on the menu. Just opt for veggie toppings, a turkey burger and rice pudding to cut the fat almost in half (to 87g). Saturated fat is slashed even more (down to 27g).


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More calcium

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This teen is now getting a healthy dose of calcium (2,600mg) mainly from low-fat cheese and milk. And by eliminating soft drinks from the diet, the amount of phosphorus—which can cause calcium loss—is dramatically reduced.


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Less sugar

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Doing away with sweet beverages drops the total sugar in this daily menu down to 23 teaspoons (112g). Yes, that's still high, but most of the sugar in this made-over diet is natural, found in fruit and other foods.


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School lunch gets a bad rap.

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Turns out the food you get in the lunch line contains healthy amounts of fat as well as adequate protein, iron, calcium and vitamins A and C.
The problems arise as children go from elementary to middle school and many stop eating school lunch, opting instead for food sold on the cafeteria's a la carte line or in vending machines. What's a parent to do? "Talk to your kids about what they're eating at school, who they're sitting with, and what time they eat, to get a feeling of what lunch is like at their school," suggests Karen Cullen, RD, associate professor of pediatrics-nutrition at the Children's Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "Often your child might not be eating well because of reasons unrelated to food—perhaps another child made fun of him for drinking milk rather than soda or the other girls at her table are not eating in order to stay slim."Use the school menus. Go over the menus each month and plan ahead which meals your child would like to buy and when he would prefer to bring lunch or have an a la carte option.Limit their funds. Consider giving your children only enough money for the standard school lunch, or at least talk to them about making better choices on the a la carte line.Check their receipts. If your child's school has computerized lunch accounts, ask if the software includes printouts of what your child is purchasing and see if you can review them.Check your school district's policies. Every school district in the country is required to have a wellness committee that decides what foods will be offered in school. Volunteer to join—or at least take the time to talk with a member about your concerns.Originally published in the March 2009 issue of Family Circle magazine.