We direct these suggestions to parents, since you probably do most of the shopping and cooking for the household—and also because if a youngster’s diet is to succeed, other members of the family need to abide by the same dietary rules.
“You can’t tell a kid, ‘These potato chips are not for you, they’re for your brothers,’ ” says Dr. Reginald Washington, a pediatric cardiologist from Denver. A heavy teenager may feel like an outsider around his peers; he doesn’t need to feel excluded from his family, too. Besides, being forced to watch others eat forbidden foods would push any dieter’s willpower to its limit. Many teenagers, just like adults, munch on fattening snacks for the same reason that mountain climbers scale tall peaks: because they’re there. For everyone’s benefit, bring fewer of those items into the home.
Count calories, not just fat. How is it that grocery-store shelves are brimming with low fat and fat-free foods, yet America’s collective waistline keeps expanding year after year? Unfortunately, many of us have mistakenly assumed that if something is labeled fat-free, we can eat as much of it as we want, when in fact many reduced-fat products harbor nearly as many calories as their full-fat versions—thanks to the fact that they are very often loaded with sugar.
Despite the increased emphasis on fat content, the mathematics of weight loss and weight gain remains unchanged: Take in more energy than you expend, and the balance gets stored as body fat, regardless of whether the calories came primarily from fat, protein or carbohydrate.
The same guidelines that help adults cut back on calories will work for their children. Here are some of the most important:
Monitor portion size. As the fat content of many foods has gone down, portion sizes have been growing steadily larger without anyone seeming to notice. Today’s “supersized” order of french fries would have fed three hungry teens when you were a kid!
In a survey commissioned by the American Institute for Cancer Research, only 1 percent of more than one thousand men and women were able to correctly estimate the standard serving sizes for potatoes, pasta and six other major foods. One of the biggest misconceptions among the public is that a single food item equals a single serving. Not necessarily. A youngster biting into one of those eight-ounce bran muffins the size of a small head of lettuce probably doesn’t realize that he’s eating the equivalent of four servings.
Home is where we have the most control over what kids eat. Instead of placing serving dishes on the table and letting everyone help themselves, prepare their plates for them. For just one week, use the Food Guide Pyramid guidelines, which specify the numbers as well as the size of servings to help you measure out appropriate portions. For example, give your teenage daughter six ounces of chicken, which constitute two servings from the meat, poultry and fish group that a teenage girl is supposed to have each day. Measuring food portions for a week will educate you about what appropriate serving sizes look like. After a week of doing this, you will be able to restrict portions to that size.
Eat slowly, eat less. Youngsters will feel more satiated if they eat at a leisurely pace, take smaller bites and chew their food thoroughly, and swallow one mouthful at a time. Warm foods, too, tend to be more filling than cold items.
Learn to read the nutrition facts labels. Direct your teenager’s attention to serving sizes, the number of servings per package, and the amount of calories per serving. Expect to hear this exclamation more than once: “Wow, I had no idea _____ was so fattening!”
Add fiber to meals. Vegetables, fruits, grains and other fibrous foods are filling yet low in calories.
Drink ice water instead of soft drinks, which make up 8 percent of the average youngster’s daily caloric intake. Sports drinks, fruit drinks—even fruit juice—also bring little nutritional value to the table.
Snack healthfully. All teenagers snack to some degree; it is unrealistic to completely eliminate that aspect of their eating habits. However, keeping a supply of low-calorie snack food in the house will help in this area.
Scale back on fast foods. A dieter can squander an entire day’s calories on a single fast-food meal. For example, one double burger with the works plus a supersized order of french fries and a large soda totals 1,410 calories (and 50 grams of fat, almost the whole daily allotment of 60 grams). What’s more, boys and girls who regularly dine on burgers, fries, shakes and the like develop what the American Dietetic Association (ADA) calls “fast-food palate.” According to the ADA, most fast-food items are so intensely flavored that they desensitize youngsters’ taste buds. As a result, they’re less likely to find vegetables or a piece of fruit satisfying.
Allow for occasional indulgences. “For a dieting teen to decide that she’s never going to eat sweets or fatty foods again is unrealistic,” says Dr. Sigman, adding that it is also a recipe for failure. “Those foods can be permitted every so often, like for special occasions or eating out at a restaurant
Q: My sixteen-year-old daughter is on a one thousand five hundred-calorie-a day diet. I’m worried that she’s not getting enough vitamins and minerals. Should she be taking any supplements?
A: As long as a teen eats one thousand two hundred or more calories per day, including five servings of fruits and vegetables, supplements should not be necessary. However, adolescents’ favorite foods tend to shortchange them of calcium, zinc, iron, magnesium and folic acid. Your pediatrician can advise you whether or not supplementing any of these vitamins or minerals is war-ranted. All teenage girls need at least four hundred milligrams of folic acid per day and most need a supplement to ensure reaching this level.