Fast-food intake on the rise among teens

Compared to 10 years ago, teenagers are eating significantly more fast food, the University of Minnesota’s Project Eating Among Teens has found. Researcher Katherine Bauer also found that as teens move from middle school to high school, their intake of fast food goes up. A similar increase also was noted among teenaged boys between high school and young adulthood.

The study of fast-food intake trends among teens appears in the March issue of Preventive Medicine. A second study, exploring predictors of fast-food intake in this age group, is published in Public Health Nutrition.

Project EAT is a long-term study involving more than 2,500 teens in the Twin Cities. Using data from the study, Bauer found that the percentage of teenagers eating fast food three or more times a week nearly doubled between the middle school and high school years. Thirty percent of high school boys and 27 percent of high school girls reported eating fast food this often. From 1999 to 2004, the percentage of high school girls eating fast food three times a week also rose from 19 percent to 27 percent.

No surprises there. But what makes these studies really worthwhile is how they examine the reasons behind this trend. Bauer’s main observation is that the increasing consumption of fast food is most likely "due to changes in our communities and society."

She cites many factors. For one, the number of fast-food outlets has greatly increased, and many of them are located near schools or other places easily accessible to youths. As students enter high school, they often acquire cars, jobs, spending money and relatively more independence, allowing them to go to fast-food places with their friends after school and on weekends.

Busy schedules also mean more families are turning to fast food because it’s, well, fast.

A particularly interesting finding from this study: High school boys who were active in sports – and thus might be expected to show discipline about what they ate – actually had some of the largest increases in fast-food consumption. Bauer suggested this might be because of sports practice schedules that conflict with dinnertime, or the need for sports teams to be on the road for games. Kids might also turn to fast food after practice so they can eat with their friends, she said.

Boys might also eat more fast food as they move into young adulthood because they’re living away from home for the first time and don’t know how to cook, Bauer said.

Her analysis of the data uncovered demographic and socioeconomic differences as well. Girls who reported being white or Asian and who came from higher-income families were less likely to eat fast food. Among boys, fast-food habits appeared to be influenced by family and friends.

The take-home message here: There’s no one solution for changing the eating habits of this age group. Less hectic family schedules might help. Sports schedules that are family dinnertime-friendly would probably help. So would kitchen skills acquired earlier in life (do any kids take old-fashioned home economics classes anymore? If not, why not?). Nor should adults overlook the importance that teenagers place on hanging out and eating with friends. Understanding the factors behind the fast-food trends, however, is one step forward in coming up with some answers.

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