The Average American Youth: Nutritionally Uneducated, Nutrient Deprived

It is no secret that young people in America eat unhealthy diets.  What most people might not be aware of is just how unhealthy teens are actually eating.  According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a meager 9.5 percent of high school students in the United States eat two or more servings of fruits and three or more servings of vegetables a day, which are the amounts recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  As the fruit and vegetable consumption recommendations given by the USDA are conservative compared to actual ideal requirements as suggested in scientific studies, the number of teens who consume enough nutrients is actually considerably less than 9.5 percent.  Tragically, the majority of high-school and college students don’t eat any fruits and vegetables at all.  It is tragic because such behavior is predictive of the development of serious chronic disease in their adult lives.

Girl eating pizza

While one might think this information is shocking, teenagers themselves are not solely to blame. Most, if not all, high-schools fail to educate teens about the importance of eating healthfully, and the limited information that is given is almost worthless. They cook foods such as pastries and macaroni and cheese in cooking classes and no effort is made to teach the link between diets low in produce and later life cancer and heart disease. Young people are constantly bombarded by advertisements from fast food, soda and snack companies trying to promote their products.  Due to the popularity and high-publicity of many chain restaurants and snacks, eating unhealthy is not just considered normal, but cool.  Junk foods such as soda, candy, chips, white-flour products and processed snack items abound around school campuses and are the most convenient and available food choices.  Seventy-five percent of high schools currently serve lunches that are high in saturated fat and salt and low in nutrients, according to the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 

In addition to the paltry supply of fruits and vegetables available on school campuses, students are loading up on soda to fulfill caloric needs. In fact, soda is the food (if you can call it that) that supplies the most calories to the American diet. Most of these calories come from high fructose corn syrup, equivalent to about 10 teaspoons of sugar. The typical soda offers, 150 calories, 30 to 55 mg of caffeine, and is packed with artificial food colors and sulphites.

Soda consumption is linked to osteoporosis, attention deficit disorder (ADD), insomnia, kidney stones, and tooth decay. Worst of all, soda is linked to obesity. In fact, the risk of obesity increases a dramatic 60 percent for each can of soda a person drinks per day. Teenagers and children, whom most soft drinks are marketed toward, are the largest consumers. Currently, teenage boys drink, on average, three or more cans of soda per day, and 10 percent drink seven or more cans each day. The average for teenage girls is two cans per day, and 10 percent drink more than five cans every day.

This year, let’s try to educate our youth.  If nothing is done to improve the eating habits of young people, I fear for my generation. The current climate of nutritional ignorance will lead to a future population of suffering and sickly adults riddled with chronic diseases, If you are trying to get healthier and lose weight, make it a family effort and try to teach your children about the importance of eating healthy and avoiding junk foods too.  Small efforts can result in big changes. It is never too early to make nutritious eating choices.Girls buying vegetables

What do you think?  What strategies should be implemented? What can we do to instill healthy eating values in our junk food world? 

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Comments (22) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Michael - January 8, 2010 9:28 AM

Seeing the picture of the girl eating a slice of pizza reminds me of my high school health class I took more than 20 years ago. The teacher was telling us pepperoni pizza was good for you because it contained all 4 food groups. It's sad to see so little change in all of that time.

Emily Boller - January 8, 2010 11:59 AM

Excellent post Talia! You are a great communicator to your generation and beyond.

The content of your writing is scary because it is truthful reality.

My son in college chose apartment living this year just to flee the constant bombardment of greasy, low nutritent, dorm cafeteria food . . . paying for food that he did not even want to eat. Now he can purchase unlimited fresh vegetables and fruits, etc., for a fraction of the cost of dorm food. He feels so much better eating for health.

This same kid was highly addicted to low nutrient, processed food and pop while his mom was addicted to the stuff.

Parents have a responsibility to this generation of youth. For our children's future health and the future health of generations to come, we must give up our destructive eating habits as they are "caught" so much more than taught.

If Mom is going to Dairy Queen for that mid-afternoon ice-cream fix, the children are learning to do it also. If she is bingeing on chips, dip, pizza and pop, the kids are learning to binge on the stuff also.

Likewise, if an abundance of tomatoes and peppers are harvested from the garden, and there's plenty of fresh veggies cut up and readily available to eat instead of junk food . . .the kids will have healthy and nourishing choices for their bodies.

The health of this nation's youth really does depend on the wisdom and guidance of the leaders and parents.

May we, as adults and parents, put aside our gluttonous indulgences for the future health and well-being of our children and generations to come.

Keep it up Talia!

Michael Crosby - January 8, 2010 12:02 PM

Hi Talia. I'm assuming you're Dr Fuhrman's daughter.

I am a huge fan of your dad. I have my own blog and here's a post I wrote that may be of interest:

So anyway Talia, if Dr Fuhrman is your dad, the few times I heard him speak he mentioned his children's eating habits. I grew up in a traditional American lifestyle in the 60s and 70s on a meat centered diet. For you to have the upbringing of a vegetable centered diet is fascinating to me.

I hope that you write more, I absolutely love your thoughts and insights. For you it is normal to eat a nutritional diet, but it is rare to find young people that grew up with your good food habits.

aunt cia - January 8, 2010 12:54 PM

It starts with the parents. And it continues with the example of parents who are committed to good health habits. In my family I first "saw the light" and have the full support of my husband who recognizes me, the stay at home mom and housewife as being the Keeper of my family's health. My children really kinda balked at first, not willing to change but anymore, they have experienced themselves the difference they feel when they eat little nutrition or lots of nutrition and have "proof positive" for what I have been trying to explain. As a homeschooler, I also try to slip in little tidbits of info throughout the day, such as "hey , I read today that almonds have a good amount of calcium in them for strong bones and teeth." That gives them something tangible to refer back to in their thoughts on health later on, maybe even when they are teenagers and make choices for or against health without their mother's physical presence with them. I'll still be in their heads! :-) A 20 year old friend recently moved into our home and she recently told me that I am starting to rub off on her. She says she can't eat junk food with a clear conscience anymore! One person at a time...let's tell the world!

Natalie - January 8, 2010 1:43 PM

I grew up in the UK and we were force-fed free Milk from the government as it was healthy. High school the choices were pizza, burgers or chicken dinosaurs and it cost a fortune, not only in price but on my health. By college I was eating total crap and ended up sick with anxiety and blood infections for years. I built myself back up with a gym membership and nutritarian eating.

However, a chef called Jamie Oliver started a scheme in the Uk recently where he taught some schools to make healthy food at a reasonable price. My mom always had me eating healthy, there were just no options at school when I was growing up.

Only way these things change is if the majority of us who are concerned about this stand up to the minority of misinformed doctors and government officials who continue to peddle lies about food.

I wouldn't have changed my ways at all if a friend of mine hadn't lent me Eat To Live 2 years ago so get out there and spread the word! All of us are spokespeople for the diet revolution, it's amazing the difference one voice can make.

Marie Krieger - January 8, 2010 2:49 PM

Brilliant post. Brava! It is very heartening to hear these sentiments and concerns expressed and articulated so well by a member of America's younger generation.

My husband and I became interested in the importance of nutrition and have shared these concerns and have lived by these values since the birth of our first child. I have been active in our children's schools, our community and have as an avocation, written for a health magazine. Our light handed approach and open minded guidance have reaped tremendous benefits for our family and for many of our children's friends who have been enthusiastic guests at our family's table throughout the years.

Your question in your concluding paragraphs about what we can do "to instill healthy eating values, in our junk food world." makes the point about values. It is all about what we value. What parent does not value the health of their child? But too many parents, even college educated ones, are grossly uninformed and unconcerned with the link between diet, exercise and health.

I believe that nutrition and health need to be connected to a paradigm shift in both formal and in the home education. No one argues that everyone needs to eat, work, sleep etc. But there is a universe of conflicting ideas about exactly the best way to do all of those things even in a civil society.

Our American society is suffering from not thinking about the longer term consequences of certain behaviors. If more societal role models begin to talk more about their diet style, personal trainers and their exercise regimens, instead of focusing so much attention on unhealthful and planet destroying habits and sensationalism, there may be hope.

You have done a great job in this post and I hope that more of your peers will follow your excellent lead.

Karrie - January 8, 2010 4:08 PM

Thank you for an interesting article. I am 37 years old and my mom was very good at providing a balanced diet. I was a very active teenager playing several sports, so I ate healthy to fuel a healthy lifestyle.

Unfortunately, when I went to college, my diet suffered horribly. Late night snacks, pizza, beer, and junk food was the norm. I struggled with my weight and health then and again in graduate school in my early thirties.

I agree that adults need to set good examples. When I worked in an office, so many people ate out every day and ate sweets and salty things in the afternoon to manage stress. College eating moved to the workplace. Caffeine abuse also abounds.

I think both adults and children need better education regarding nutrition and cooking. Health classes should include some practical application. I taught myself to cook as an adult, but I wished I had tried a vegetarian diet sooner

CACC - January 8, 2010 4:59 PM

Talia, thanks for the great post. I would love to see more posts from you. You write well and it's good for us parents to hear from someone who was brought up eating well.

tina - January 8, 2010 5:41 PM

Well stated!! I'm a middle school health teacher and you've hit the mark w/this one! The family MUST get involved to help support any sort of change.

Matutt - January 8, 2010 6:18 PM

I juiced a cucumber, two carrots, an apple and a whole bunch of spinach, I drank it. Meanwhile I was watching the news about alcohol consumption in the coast of Argentina (my country). We all know they sell alcohol at Discos. Imagine all the youngsters drinking vegetable juice instead. Haha they would dance for hours and hours :D Arrive home feeling optimal instead of destroyed.

Greg - January 8, 2010 9:55 PM

The only food education I remember from high school was from my science teacher. Other than the ham and cheese, white bread sandwhiches that passed as school lunch, my science teacher was the god of all things science. If he said something, it was science.

Our science teacher was asked in class if candy was bad for you, and after much careful thought, he said no because there's nothing but sugar in it. So, as long as we brushed our teeth we would be fine.

The problem with nutrition eduction in our schools is that teachers are uneducated about nutrition, and the only source of information comes from junk food company advertisements.

Mieke Benton - January 8, 2010 11:13 PM

We need to start with our selves and in that way we can show our kids what is possible. They will see it. I changed my life style and they notice the difference. They will be able to make changes themselves, because they see it is possible. I bring healthier foods home and they are learning new flavors and products.

Denise D'Agostino - January 9, 2010 12:14 AM

As always, I love this blog! and being in my early twenties I'm happy that there are other young people out there who are serious about health. I had mono in college for over a year! Of course, Dr. Fuhrman's books were my saving grace and finally reversed the illness. One aspect I think that is also important to note is the CONFIDENCE that comes along with eating for health. Excellent emotional health is a wonderful side effect of the nutritarian lifestyle for me!! It's something that I can feel everyday and hope more and more young people can experience too. Thanks Talia!

Lynne (Horsecrazy) - January 9, 2010 6:37 PM

Great writing Talia! I hope we will hear more from you!

Susan - January 10, 2010 2:23 PM

Great post, Talia! It disturbs me that many families don't cook much anymore. And when they do, they're often using a bunch of premade processed (non)foods thrown together. Nutritionally bereft.

Learning the fun of cooking great tasting meals from whole foods should be on every school's curriculum and every family's agenda.

MIke Rubino - January 11, 2010 6:46 PM

Great stuff. I have two nephews and one niece in your age group and their diet gives me great worry. They all have had medical problems which I believe is related to the poor nutrition they get. Keep up the good work it's better coming from you than adults.

DJ Freddie Palumbo - January 12, 2010 1:27 AM

Very well communicated. If only there were curriculum dedicated to nutritional science in all school as well as healthy options to eat. I feel cheated by the schools. Im surprised the 9% is as high as that. MY true and most valuable education began four months ago at the age of 44 when introduced to EAT TO LIVE and Dr. Fuhrman's teachings by a good friend. Thank you Talia, Dr. Deana and all who provide the priceless educational content for Disease Proof.

Sara - January 14, 2010 9:35 PM

I think there are some institutional barriers you are leaving out here that keep kids from eating well.

For example, when I was in undergrad (8 years ago?), I had a tiny refrigerator that I shared with a roomate in our 200 sq ft dorm room, that was so broken down that any produce lasted maybe a day in it, before the refrigerator froze and ruined it.

Living in a college town and not having a car, I depended either on the kindness of friends to take me to the grocery store, or had to take the bus, making carrying bulk items like fruit incredibly difficult.

There was one communal kitchen that was habitually used or dirty with a communal fridge that was regularly stolen from. Oh, and I had no money, had to live in the dorms for financial reasons and couldn't buy pricey items. I once ate nothing but free surplus pastries from the bakery that my friend worked at because I had run out of money for the month and had to eat something. Muffins and bagels for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

So, not all of us eat badly in college because we don't know better. Sometimes we don't have a choice.

Talia - January 15, 2010 10:38 PM

Thanks for the great feedback you guys. Yes, I am Dr. Fuhrman's daughter. It is sad that so little change has occurred over the years in what is taught about nutrition in schools. I hope more change happens in the future as the current obesity epidemic continues to lead to widespread health problems. Everybody can make a difference and I am encouraged by your stories. Thanks again!

April - May 23, 2010 3:42 AM

I agree it starts with the parents, the relatives, the peers and the community. The more people become educated around this huge issue the better. It is very hard for most people to acknowledge there is something very wrong with the American diet. I have seen major changes in my families diet over the last couple of years as we have moved to a more plant based diet. I am very excited about what the future holds due to the health benefits of making this change.

Amy Dawson - October 29, 2010 10:44 AM

I love your post. As a mom of a 4th grader and 1st grader I also have a lunch idea website that I run with my husband ( Our family enjoys very healthy food and our kids are some of the few in school that don't show up with mostly pre-packaged items that are nutritionally void. I know there are a lot of programs out there trying to improve - but it seems like a very long slow road out!

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