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Pass the Veggies, Please!
How fatty, sugary foods are poisoning our generation
Quaneyah Cleveland

As a teenager it’s hard to stay away from fast food. Everywhere you turn, you see a McDonald’s or a Burger King. The brightly colored advertisements hypnotize you with their low prices. It’s difficult to turn away because it is convenient and you know you are going to enjoy it. Because I have been eating McDonald’s since I was so young, my taste buds are already accustomed to the flavor. But I know that it is terribly unhealthy.

I decided to get a professional opinion on the topic of healthy eating. I spoke with Mike Hernandez, community outreach manager for the Healthy Monday campaign at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Healthy Monday is a national program that dedicates the first day of the week to health, including things like exercising, eating better, and tackling unhealthy habits like smoking. According to Hernandez, the basic definition of junk food is food that is high in calories but low in nutritional content and often heavily salted.

“Unfortunately people are getting more of their calories from fast-food restaurants, unhealthy processed snack foods, and sugar-sweetened beverages—like soda, fruit punches, and energy drinks—which are high in calories and sodium and offer zero nutritional value. They should be eating more real foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy proteins like fish, poultry, nuts, beans, and lean meats,” Hernandez said.

When I asked how eating unhealthy could affect your mental state, he said that these foods can make you feel lazy and sluggish, which can lead to weight gain and even depression. If that’s true, then why do many people crave fast food and other junk food?

It turns out that people can get addicted to junk food. A recent study showed that rats, when given unlimited amounts of fatty and sugary foods, actually underwent a change in their brains that made them need more of it in order to get pleasure from it. That’s the same thing that happens in the brain with drugs and other types of addiction.

Eating too much sugar and fat can cause, among other problems, heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes. But if these kinds of foods are so addicting, how do we stop?

Monkey See, Monkey Do

When it comes to developing unhealthy eating habits, it’s sort of like monkey see, monkey do. No one in my family encouraged me to eat fast food, but I do see my family eat it, so I just gained a liking for it. Fast food fills you, but it doesn’t last long. In a short period of time you are hungry again, craving more.

Being in a residential treatment center (RTC) for nine months has just made things worse. Since I arrived at my RTC, I’ve gained a lot of weight. A typical dinner there is rice with some kind of meat or stew. We rarely get vegetables. When my staff is in a friendly mood they might decide to make a salad, but lately it’s been rare.

image by Terrence Taylor

Breakfast is even worse. It is always a choice between frozen pancakes, waffles, or French toast sticks. We get a bowl of cereal, usually sugary Froot Loops or Apple Jacks and a cup of apple or orange juice (which also has a lot of sugar). No protein is involved. And it’s not just group homes and RTCs; I’ve heard other teens in care complain they have very little say about what their foster parent buys for them to eat.

Having crappy food forced on us doesn’t help teens gain a deeper understanding of food in relationship to our health. More and more kids have bad eating habits and are overweight. At the same time, they’re exercising less than ever. The RTC doesn’t offer a lot of activities to get you up and moving. We sit around after the meal, and the fat builds up.

Hernandez warns that our generation is in trouble. “For the first time in over 200 years, today’s children are less likely to live as long as their parents,” he said. “This in itself is an alarming realization. Hence the concern over childhood obesity, which can lead to many chronic diseases.” He added that kids are now suffering from diseases that we normally think of as problems for older people, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and some forms of cancer.

Tricks for Eating Better

You can eat better without giving up everything you love. If you eat a burger and fries, try going breadless and request baked fries instead of deep-fried, or ask to substitute salad for the fries (this probably won’t be possible at fast food restaurants).

In general, fruits and vegetables should fill about half your plate. This summer, I’ve been eating a lot of salads from a cafe near the Represent office. It’s a great deal for only $3.00. The next time you go to Burger King or Wendy’s, look for the healthiest thing there, such as salad with light dressing.

To stay healthy, Hernandez suggested an easy way to make sure you’re getting enough fruits and vegetables, and the right kinds—eat a rainbow of natural colors: red, orange/yellow, green, and blue/purple. “Simply put, these colors represent a variety of vitamins and nutrients, which your body needs. You should try to eat at least three, if not four, different colors of fruits and vegetables,” said Hernandez.

Rather than sugary juice, soda, and energy drinks, drink plain water—that will help your body stay hydrated and keep your organs pumping. Junk food every once in a while isn’t bad, but don’t eat it every day. Good food is to your body what good fuel is to a car—you’re not going to perform your best, physically or mentally, unless you fuel yourself with a healthy diet.

Granted, it’s hard to change your eating habits when you’re living in someone else’s home, or in an institution. To advocate for healthier food in your foster home, you could do some Internet research about what foods are truly healthy and try speaking to your foster parent and foster care agency about your nutritional needs.

It may be harder in an RTC, but maybe a group of students could get together and write a letter or request a meeting with the director. You have to keep speaking up to the people with authority because your health is really important. What teens eat now will shape their bodies—and their minds—for life.

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