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Teen Angst: Why Do I Have to Eat Fruits & Vegetables

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From a recent interview with Ashley Koff RD - for more, visit

Recently I learned that less than ten percent of teens are getting the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables. Many teens may think it's no big deal to eat mostly processed foods and snacks rather than fruits and vegetables. Are there real health consequences that teens should worry about if they're not eating any fruits and veggies? What are some of those potential consequences, both immediate and long-term?

A few thoughts here, fruits and vegetables play critical roles (every color is assigned to a body part / function ie orange for vision / skin, red/ blue /purple for heart, green for digestion and cancer prevention) in the short term and the long term. When we don't eat fruits and vegetables we miss out on fiber which acts to A: help us feel full (so we may overeat / drink calorically dense foods that contribute to higher weight) B: acts as an internal scrub brush cleaning out our entire digestive tract -- think of it this way, if we don't get our teeth cleaned for 20 years and then go get them cleaned there's going to be tons of plaque and some that is so stuck there that it can't come off and it also increases our risk of cavities.

Same thing in our intestines -- we get major build up and a higher risk of disease. In the long term, fruits and vegetables also contribute "phytonutrients" (phyto means plant) which help prevent cancer and other chronic disease. We know today that teen years as well as earlier are our "building years" so its important to build a strong foundation which includes f & v.

Teens may not eat fruits and especially vegetables because they're not big fans of the taste. What are some ideas for really yummy meals (let's say one idea for each meal -- breakfast, lunch, and dinner) that incorporate fruits and veggies?

Have you ever been to a school and tried the fruit and veggies? I wouldn't even eat the free ones provided at my hospital internship and also when I worked making school lunches -- so teens have a point!

It can be fun to engage them by making a social outing of going to a farmer's market and sampling or even learning to grow your own (even an herb) to see how good fresh food can taste. I make panini sandwiches with apples / pears slices in a George Forman or panini maker and spread peanut butter (my favorite is!) - they taste great raw too. Or a Parfait -- organic berries, nuts and seeds, even some chocolate chips, and a crunchy fiber cereal like Optimum Slim (Nature's Path) and an organic plain greek yogurt. Or take frozen organic berries and use them as ice cubes in tea or lemon water. Or a Gorrilla sandwich with a cucumber -- hollow it out -- and fill with hummus. Or roasted mixed vegetables with rosemary and sea salt to make "veggie chips". Or jicama and coconut with lime and cayenne or paprika. Not your boring steamed vegetables.

There are a lot of schools that unfortunately do not offer ample healthy options in the cafeteria and/or vending machine. (One girl I spoke with said the only healthy snack option at her school is basically bruised fruit. Yuck.) What tips/suggestions do you have for getting around this problem of accessibility at school?

More parents and schools are doing CSA's (community sponsored agriculture), even replacing the bake sales with fruit and vegetable sales for the community. This and talking about having a garden on campus are ideal. If not, I recommend on the weekend trying to buy fruits / vegetables in season and either bringing to school or making sure that breakfast, after school snack and dinner are rich in vegetables and fruit. Keep in mind when we say this we do not mean Froot Loops, Fruit strips, or fruit juice -- eat the fruit and skip these high sugar low fiber options

Any last words on why you think fruits and vegetables are awesome, and why teens who aren't necessarily big fans of them should look at them in a different light?

When we are 13 it's hard to think about being 30 and impossible to think about 60, so sometimes the long term health messages are lost. In the short term I tell teens that shiny hair, clear skin, a flat belly and healthy weight are the result of a balanced diet BASED on fruits and vegetables - play the game for one week and see how many different colors you can get in during your day (from whole fruits and vegetables - Skittles don't count!). If you don't like tomatoes (red), then try for strawberries...if you hate green apples, try some broccoli...its ok to "snow it" with some parmesan cheese if that helps with the taste. :)