Healthy Weight for Teens

The Soda Factor

As the numbers in the box below make clear, we live in a food environment that makes maintaining a healthy weight a special challenge for young people. Surrounded by expertly crafted messages that equate happiness with consumption of convenient, calorie-laden, nutrient-poor foods and beverages, children and teens can easily pack on extra pounds that put them at risk for chronic disease. Usually, they don’t realize that many of the extra calories may be coming from a single, easy-to-swallow source: sweetened beverages.

More is a Lot More

“Americans don’t buy soda in one-serving cans any more for the refrigerator at home,” observes Jenny Flora, M.S., a nutritionist at Canyon Ranch in Tucson, and the mother of three young adults. “We buy it in two-liter bottles. It’s just one example of how excessive consumption has become easy and normal – and, often, simply a habit.”

Habitual consumption of soda, sports and energy drinks and sweetened coffee drinks instead of healthful, calorie-free thirst-quenchers – such as water – is a big contributor to the average American’s intake of 22 to 28 teaspoons of added sugar – containing between 350 to 440 empty calories – a day. To put this in perspective: 400 excess calories per day equals about a pound every nine days, or 40 pounds a year.

Research is showing that liquid calories are especially significant, for several reasons. First, people tend not to compensate for liquid calories the way they do for calories consumed in food – most of us will eat less for dinner if we eat a big lunch, but not if we drink the extra calories. Second, there’s an increasing body of evidence that indicates that people who get extra calories from high-fructose corn syrup (the most common sweetener in sweetened beverages) tend to put on more fat around their middles than people who consume the same number of excess calories from regular sugar or other sources. This is significant because belly fat is more closely linked to chronic health problems than fat deposited elsewhere in the body. Third, liquid calories are usually empty calories – most sugary beverages offer no other nutrients.

Breaking the Soda Habit

For all these reasons, it’s critical that young people who want to maintain a healthy weight become aware of added sugar throughout the food environment, and, particularly, in the beverages so relentlessly marketed to them. Fortunately, as Jenny observes, young people tend to be open to new ideas and new ways of doing things.

“Something I love about working with teens is that they’re not stuck in their ways. When motivated, they form new attitudes and habits easily – plus they have great metabolisms! They burn calories like crazy, so once they get a handle on where the excess is coming from, they often get control of their weight quite rapidly.”

Other key elements of healthy weight for young people are the same as they are for adults, says Jenny: regular exercise and effective stress reduction.

“There’s no magic to achieving a healthy weight, and no drastic, overnight fix that’s sustainable,” says Jenny. “What works, though, is very doable – healthier living through good nutrition, physical activity and stress-reduction. Limiting sugary drinks is a fabulous start – it’s what we nutritionists think of as ‘the low-hanging fruit’ of healthy weight loss.”

It’s an especially hopeful endeavor for teens. “Healthy weight for young people is about a lot more than looks or the number on the scale – it’s about happiness, confidence and a bright, healthy future.”

Youth Obesity by the Numbers

5,500 – Number of ads for food and beverages viewed by the average child or teen in a year

800 – Number of calories in a 64-oz fountain soft drink

Less Than 400 – Number of calories in a 64-oz fountain soft drink, as estimated by students in a college nutrition class

33% – Percentage of overweight children and teens in the U.S.