According to researchers from the American Heart Association (AHA), a staggering 80 percent of U.S. teens have diets high in salt, sugar, and fat, but low on fruits and vegetables — placing them squarely on the road to developing heart disease.
Study author Christina Shay of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center told NBC News that those unhealthy eating habits are exacerbated by a lack of exercise. “The far less-than-optimal physical activity levels and dietary intake of current U.S. teenagers, is translating into obesity and overweight that, in turn, is likely influencing worsening rates of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and blood glucose at these young ages,” she said. According to the report:
Fewer than 80 percent scored well on diet. Just 1 percent met the ideal guidelines of 4.5 or more cups a day of fruits and vegetables, two servings of fish a week, 3 ounces a day of whole grains, less than 1,500 mg of salt a day and no more than 450 calories worth of sugar-sweetened drinks a week.
Only 45 percent scored acceptably on five or more of the factors. Only 44 percent of girls and 67 percent of boys reported ideal physical activity levels. Just two-thirds had ideal weights.
A third already had unhealthy cholesterol levels or were on the way there, the report found. The good news came on blood pressure — 90 percent of the girls and 78 percent of the boys had healthy blood pressure. And 66 to 70 percent had never tried smoking.
While plummeting smoking rates among U.S. teens have been a signature public health success story, childhood obesity remains a stubborn hurdle to improving Americans’ wellness and reducing national health expenditures. A February study by the Centers for Disease Control found that, while American children reduced their overall caloric intake between 2009 and 2010, the proportion of fat making up their diet was still above recommended levels. Even worse, children who were already obese were among the groups that ate the most unhealthy foods, highlighting the reality that ingrained dietary behavior is extremely difficult to change.
These childhood behaviors have long-lasting consequences, as lifelong chronic illnesses such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease take root at a young age. In March, a team of Harvard researchers found that sugary drinks commonly peddled to youth were linked to 180,000 worldwide deaths every year, and excess salt consumption was responsible for one in 10 American deaths in 2010. But perhaps the latest AHA numbers shouldn’t be surprising, given that almost all “kids’ meals” at affordable chain restaurants flunk healthy nutritional standards and fast food establishments like McDonald’s use misleading ad campaigns to make their products appear to be healthy.