Growing in All the Wrong Directions

Lunchtime—kids flock to the cafeteria and come out loaded with bags of chips, Pop-Tarts and fries. One group walks back onto campus with Venti-sized Caramel FrappuccinosTM. After school, students get home, plop down on the couch with a soda in hand and stay there for the rest of the afternoon. This is the common regimen of an American teenager. So how healthy is the average teen? Not very.

It is well-known that the prevalence of obesity and being overweight has increased sharply for children and teenagers. Results from the 2003-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) indicate that an estimated 17 percent of adolescents are overweight, an increase approximately 6 percent since the ‘90s.

“You can see the difference in the amount of people who are considered obese … than there were just a couple of decades ago,” health teacher Vickie Christensen said. “California’s not [doing] great.”

These numbers are bringing up growing concerns over the implications for teenagers’ health. Being overweight increases the risk of many diseases, such as hypertension (high blood pressure), type 2 diabetes and other potentially organ-damaging problems.

So how did this happen? How is it that there may be another generation of overweight adults at risk for such health conditions?

One reason is that teens lead a very sedentary lifestyle, ensconced in the couch watching more TV and sitting in front of a computer for hours at a time doing homework, games and FAcebook. They are not getting sufficient exercise.

“To gain weight, a person is eating more than what they expend,” renal dietitian Dr. Lynn Oehler said. “The more you are active during the day, the more calories you will burn. Exercise helps to build and maintain muscle mass, which uses energy. Any unused energy from the food we eat is stored as fat and glycogen.”

Teenagers also lack nutrition. With full schedules, there is a growing tendency to eat out or, worse, heat up pre-packaged, oily foods.Outings to Starbucks and Jamba Juice are also key pitfalls. Regular-sized Jamba Juice smoothies and especially Starbucks’ specialty drinks are very high in calories from both fat and sugar, even when specified as “non-fat,” “decaf” and “sugar free.”

“I’ve seen a lot of people with FrappuccinosTM, and it’s not that healthy no matter what,” junior Hediyeh Shakeri said.

Consumption of sugary drinks isn’t the only worry.

“Another concern is the lack of milk and dairy products in teens’ diets,” Dr. Oehler said.

Soda, a bone of contention with many schools, will cause calcium loss. Combined with a lack of exercise, which leads to less dense bones and muscle mass, teenagers have a much greater chance of getting osteopenia and other diseases related to the skeletal system later in life.

“We have a lot of resources … [but] because we don’t have to run around and chase the buffalo in order to get our food, we tend to get a little complacent,” Christensen said. “I think we need to step it up and be more aware.”