How Eating Fast Food Affects Teen Health

Frequently eating fast food could cause teens and young adults to gain more weight and face an increased risk of developing insulin resistance, according to the results of a longitudinal study that followed over 3,000 young adults over a period of 15 years. Funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) and published in The Lancet, subjects who ate at fast-food restaurants more than twice a week compared with those who do so less than once a week had gained an extra 10 pounds and had a two-fold increase in insulin resistance, a risk factor for type 2 diabetes. Diabetes is a major risk factor for heart disease.

Young man in a striped shirt eating hamburger, focus on the burger
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What This Means for Your Teen

Fast-food consumption has increased in the United States over the past three decades. On average, Americans eat out 5.8 times a week. That's more than double the amount that showed increased risks for chronic disease in study participants, who were between the ages of 18 and 30. So what does this mean for your teen?

Lead author of the study, Mark Periera, Ph.D., assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota, explains: “It’s extremely difficult to eat in a healthy way at a fast-food restaurant. Despite some of their recent healthful offerings, the menus still tend to include foods high in fat, sugar, and calories, and low in fiber and nutrients.” Pereira believes it's time to cut back on fast food intake and designate a kitchen time for you and your teen. Even if you start with once a week, that's one less meal eaten out of home, and that could save your teen some pounds.

Reasons for Teen Weight Gain

One reason for the weight gain teens experience due to eating out may be that a single meal from one of these restaurants often contains enough calories to satisfy a person’s caloric requirement for an entire day. Participants were asked during the physical examinations given as part of the study how often they ate breakfast, lunch or dinner at fast food restaurants. The adverse impact on teens’ weight and insulin resistance was seen across all participants who ate frequently at fast-food restaurants, even after adjustments for other lifestyle habits.

How to Cut Back

There are strategies for improving how you eat and they don't all involve cooking every meal in your home kitchen. For starters, know what's healthy on the menus of fast food restaurants. Many now offer salads, grilled as opposed to fried foods, and limited offerings of fresh fruit or yogurt. These options may be better than other dessert and staple items on the menu. Now that nutritional content is displayed on many fast food menus, designate certain meals on your "OK to Eat" list for certain fast food restaurants if you're in a bind. If you want to step it up a notch, before you are hungry, create a list of healthy fast food restaurants in your area and in the areas where you work and practice your hobbies. This go-to list will help you eat as healthy as you can when eating out. A great place to find a list of healthy fast food restaurants is through the Eat Real Campaign. If you must indulge, keep portion sizes small, and ask that high-fat sauces and condiments, such as salad dressings and mayonnaise, be “on the side” and use them sparingly to reduce calories.

1 Source
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  1. Mark Pereira, Alex I. Kartashov, Cara B. Ebbeling, Linda Van Horn, Martha L. Slattery, David R. Jacobs, Jr., David S. Ludwig. Fast-food habits, weight gain, and insulin resistance (The CARDIA Study): 15-year prospective analysisThe Lancet, January 1, 2005. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(04)17663-0

By Tracee Cornforth
Tracee Cornforth is a freelance writer who covers menstruation, menstrual disorders, and other women's health issues.