WASHINGTON — Many parents of teenagers struggle with how to instill better eating habits in their children and often assume it is simply too late to change their teen’s behavior before they leave the nest for college. However, Sally Squires, who writes the Lean Plate Club™ blog, says research shows that may not be the case.
Squires said much of the work on fighting childhood obesity has focused on younger age groups because they have more time to develop healthy exercise and eating habits. Teens, on the other hand, are often thought to be more set in their ways and slower to take cues from authority figures. But the answer to that problem may be closer at hand than people think: team sports.
According to Squires, there is new research that suggests the teenage years provide a great opportunity to instill healthy habits that can serve adolescents well for the rest of their lives. At a recent annual meeting of the Society for Nutrition and Education and Behavior, a team of scientists from Oregon State University presented results from a two-year obesity prevention study involving nearly 400 high school soccer players. The study showed signs that teenagers are more open to the idea of healthy life habits than people typically assume, and some teens may already have a first-hand look at the importance of healthy eating and fitness.
“Before the study began, we were surprised to know that students really wanted to know more about how to eat healthily,” Squires said. “They care a lot about their appearance, they also were seeing a lot of adults in their lives who already have weight-related diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Frankly, many of them expressed concern that this was their future. They could see how much some of the adults in their lives were struggling, and they really wanted to make changes.”
The goal of the study was to see if teens could be influenced to eat more fruits and vegetables, while decreasing the amount of unhealthy saturated fat and added sugars they took in. Half of the teams in the study were given access to sports nutrition information, life-skill workshops, newsletters and virtual experiential learning. The teams in the control groups were not given any of these materials.
“We’re starting to see that teens are actually craving this information, which is not what we would necessarily expect,” Squires said.
Over the course of two years, the teams that received the information significantly cut their intake of added sugars by an average of 12 grams per day and decreased how much saturated fat they ate by an average of 3 grams per day. By comparison, the control group increased its added sugar by about 10 grams per day.
Squires said this study, and others similar to it, are good indicators that adolescence is a good time to teach healthy habits. In fact, a pilot program was launched to implement some of these findings at Thurgood Marshall Academy, a charter school in Anacostia, along with two other schools. Teens who participated in the program started to drink more water, rather than sugar-sweetened beverages, and ate more fruit and vegetables.
“What was really interesting to us is that they were actually going home and sharing this information with their parents, and trying to get them to either be more active or eat more healthily,” Squires said. “It was encouraging to us, and to USDA, that maybe teens could actually be agents of change in their own families.”