Ask the Doctors

Dear Doctor: My teenagers refuse to eat vegetables unless they're fried. Are they doomed to obesity and ill health?

Dear Reader: We wish we could reassure you and say it'll all be OK, but studies have long been clear on the matter. What your kids eat now will shape their health for years -- and maybe decades -- to come.

Poor eating habits have caused a spike in childhood obesity in the last few decades. Today, more than 17 percent of kids ages 2 to 17 qualify as obese. That's double what it was 20 years ago.

Being overweight has put young people at increased risk of all kinds of health problems and led to a sharp increase in the diagnosis of conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, elevated blood cholesterol, fatty liver, and even asthma and sleep disorders.

But before you confront your kids with a list of "don'ts," which teens are naturally primed to resist, be aware that the newest study on youth nutrition has some great news. It arms you with the information you need to right the nutritional course while encouraging your teens in a positive way.

Here's the gist: Young people who ate fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains, and who steered clear of sugar, red meat and processed foods, gained significantly less weight as they entered young adulthood.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota, followed the eating habits of 2,500 adolescents from the time they were 15 until they turned 25.

Researchers found that by eating well at age 15, young people developed the habit of good nutrition, and it carried on into their 20s and beyond.

The takeaway? You can guide your children to a more healthful adulthood by helping them establish good eating habits while they are in their teens.

Some strategies:

-- Stock the fridge with plenty of vegetables, fruits and whole-grain products.

-- Clear out the processed foods and the fatty, salty snacks.

-- Serve lean meats, poultry, fish, beans and legumes for protein.

-- Make sure that serving portions are a reasonable size.

-- Make the home a no-soda zone. This includes diet drinks.

-- Steer clear of sugar and sweets.

The goal is moderation, and your best chance at success is to get creative. Instead of being forbidden, let the fried foods your kids love become special-event treats. That way, they'll be less likely to feel deprived and sneak-eat. Cooking together -- scouting recipes, shopping, preparing the food and eating as a family -- can go a long way to cementing the new eating behavior.

Exercise makes a big difference, not just to teens but for adults as well. There's no better way than to lead by example. Start taking family hikes or bike rides. Pick out a local race to train for and set an in-family competition with personal goals and rewards.

If you market these changes as something that's fun for the kids and for yourself, you're far more likely to create healthy habits that will last for life.

(Eve Glazier, M.D., MBA, is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Elizabeth Ko, M.D., is an internist and primary care physician at UCLA Health.)

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095.)

More like Ask the Doctors