How can we save the health of our teenagers?

041013 Teens and Heart Disease WEB

Teenagers are well on their way to developing heart disease at such a young age! Yes, these were the findings of a recent study of nearly 5,000 teens that was just published in the prestigious medical journal Circulation[1].

Our current generation of teenagers will be one of the first generations to be sicker and die younger than their parents[2]

In this study, they looked at how well our teenagers met the 7 goals of the American Heart Association (AHA) which include a normal blood pressure, healthy diet, normal cholesterol, daily physical activity, normal glucose levels, normal weight, and not smoking. 

Unfortunately, less than half of our teenagers meet even 5 of these 7 goals!  Interestingly, Mexican American teenagers were found to have the least unhealthy lifestyle.

The area where they scored the lowest was with a healthy diet.  The healthy diet recommended by the AHA includes 4 of the 5 following features:

  • ​4.5 cups of fruits or vegetables daily
  • 2 servings of fish each week (ideally a fatty fish like salmon)
  • 3 servings of whole grains each day
  • Less than 1,500 mg of sodium each day
  • Less than 450 calories of a sugary drink (like soda pop or energy/sports drinks) each week

Amazingly, less than 1% of all teenagers are eating a healthy diet! Is it any wonder that studies[3] show that the arteries of the heart can start plugging up beginning as young as age 6?

Because 80% of all heart disease is completely preventable[4] with a healthy lifestyle we need to take action now to protect our teens from a life of sickness and early death!

To help our teens, we need to begin in our homes. We cannot rely on the school systems as physical education has largely been cut from most school budgets and school lunches are notoriously unhealthy for our children.

So what can we do in the home to improve the health and wellness of our teens? While I cannot speak from experience in raising teenagers as the oldest of my three children is approaching 11, the same principles apply.

We have found that the 3 simple steps below can go a long way in improving the health of our children.

  1. Be Physically Active as a Family
    Parents need to model healthy behavior to children if we have any hope that our will be healthy. Indeed, studies have shown that families who spend their leisure time together engaged in physical activity are much healthier than those who do not. In our family, every vacation and weekend is centered around physical activity. For our family vacations and weekends, we ski, bike, hike, go for a walk, etc. as a family. Even when we travel to cities, such as our trip to New York City last year we walked everywhere we went.

  2. Serve Vegetables and Fruit with Every Meal
    Yes, teenagers are not the only ones with unhealthy diets.  Indeed, data from the American Heart Association has shown that less than 1% of American adults have a healthy diet as well[5]. In our home, our children eat at least one serving of fruits and vegetables with every meal, including breakfast. Our children have come to expect a salad or other vegetables as part of a “normal” breakfast. Knowing the health hazards of eating school lunch, our children often prepare their own healthy lunch to take to school each day. Snack time also generally includes a fruit or a vegetable.

  3. Avoid Processed Foods
    If there is one food group that is probably destroying our health more than anything else it is all of the processed meats (hot dogs, bacon, sausage, deli meats), processed snack foods, processed sweets/bakery items, and processed foods in general (basically any pre-prepared foods). The salt and sugar content of these foods are beyond comprehension. Is it any wonder than roughly 50% of all adults in the U.S. have diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol? While our teenagers are not yet at the 50% level for these three silent killers, they are approaching it fast and at a younger age than has ever before been seen.

The health of our teens is the future health of our country.  If we can just institute these three simple lifestyle changes in our families today we can prevent a lifetime of taking medications, disability, and early death.  The choice is up to us. 

[1] Circulation. 2013;127:1369-1376

[2] N Engl J Med. 2005;352:1138–1145

[3] Circulation. 2012;125:1971–1978

[4] N Engl J Med. 2000;343:16–22

[5] Circulation. 2013 Jan 1;127(1):143-52​