Unhealthy Habits: How Well Are Teens Taking Care of Themselves? Here's a Report Card on Some of Their Choices

Newsweek, May 8, 2000 | Go to article overview

Unhealthy Habits: How Well Are Teens Taking Care of Themselves? Here's a Report Card on Some of Their Choices


Ok, there are those dreaded pimples and that mess of raging hormones. But most American teens aren't battling the scourges of adulthood--cancer, heart disease, arthritis. What young people are facing is their own minefield of health risks: an overwhelming array of behavioral and lifestyle choices and pressures from what to eat to whether or not to smoke or use illegal drugs. What they decide now could affect their health for a lifetime. Here's a look at how they're doing:

Eating: Snack foods and sodas rule. On a scale of zero to 100 in the government's Healthy Eating Index (80 and up being "good"), teens scored in the low 60s, earning them a big fat "needs improvement." Only about one in 10 adolescents gets the recommended two to four daily servings of fruit. They do slightly better with veggies, with about one fourth scarfing down the recommended three to five. But that doesn't mean they're filling up on carrots and spinach--french fries, potato chips and pizza sauce all count.

Even more worrisome are a disturbing duo: eating disorders and rising obesity. More than half of all teen girls say they are or should be on a diet--incessantly battling the 40 pounds they naturally gain as they grow between the ages of 8 and 14. About 3 percent take it to the extreme, spiraling into bulimia or anorexia. There are no precise numbers, but researchers say eating disorders appear to be on the rise and are affecting children as young as 8. The health effects include osteoporosis, organ failure--even death. While far more common in girls, boys are also vulnerable. And they have their own obsession: the muscular look. Jackie Berning of the American Dietetic Association says creatine, an amino acid supplement used by athletes to build muscle power, is now "the hot new thing" among teen boys. Most assume it's harmless, but its safety hasn't been tested long term.

Experts are increasingly worried about obesity, too. Today a record one in five teens is overweight (as defined by a weight-to-height ratio), putting them at increased risk for heart disease, the nation's No. 1 killer. The immediate effects are already evident: weight-related type II diabetes--once called "adult-onset"--is now being diagnosed more frequently in adolescents. Sedentary lifestyles are a big part of the problem. Daily enrollment in high-school P.E. classes dropped from 42 percent in 1991 to 25 percent in 1995. And when teens aren't working after school or slogging through homework, many are watching TV or surfing the chat rooms. Burning energy? Not.

Sleeping: Given the hurried-up, tech-driven lives they lead, adolescents aren't exactly well rested. They should get at least nine hours of sleep every night, but only about 15 percent do. And a full quarter get less than six, says Dr. Mary Carskadon of Brown University. They're "hugely sleep deprived," she says. …

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