How Does Junk Food Affect Developing Teens?

brother and sister eating pastries
Two teens eating sugary snack cakes at home. (Image: Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

The teen years are a period of rapid growth and development. In fact, teenagers need more calories during this period than they will ever need again in their lives, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Teens who eat junk food -- soda, chips, candy and fast food -- to meet their calorie needs do themselves a disservice. Loading up on junk food may affect teen's weight, nutritional intake and health.

Weight Gain

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 21 percent of teens in the United States are obese, up from 5 percent in 1980. The increase in obesity rates is due to an increase in overall calorie intake. Sweet desserts, such as cakes and cookies, and soda are the top two sources of calories in a teen's diet, according to the publication "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010." Junk food is a concentrated source of calories, so teens consume more calories than they realize, leading to weight gain.

Displace Good Foods

If teens load up on junk food, they may be less likely to eat good foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy foods, which in turn may make it harder for them to meet their nutrient needs. Most teens don't eat enough fruits and vegetables each day, reports "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010," so they miss out on nutrients such as vitamins A and C, magnesium, folate, potassium and fiber. Additionally, many teen girls do not meet their daily calcium needs, which might increase their risk of poor bone health later in life.

Health Risks

Teens may not give much thought to how their diet affects their health, but they should. Junk food is not only high in calories but also in sodium, fat and sugar. And it's low in fiber, vitamins and minerals. Eating too much sodium increases your risk of high blood pressure. Although high blood pressure in teens is rare, it can happen, according to KidsHealth.org, and the risk increases as you get older. Foods high in unhealthy fat, like the fat found in junk food, may also increase a teen's risk of high cholesterol and atherosclerosis. Eating too much junk food also affects concentration and school performance.

Help Your Teen Eat Better

If your teen is a junk food junkie, help her improve her health and break the unhealthy eating cycle that may follow her into adulthood. You can do this by making small changes to a teen's usual diet. Instead of sugary drinks with meals, offer low-fat milk, water or seltzer flavored with orange or lemon slices. Keep healthy snacks readily available -- fresh fruit, cut-up veggies, nuts and whole-grain crackers -- to make it easy for your teen to eat healthy in between meals. Also, eat together. If your teen sees you making good food choices, he might too.

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