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The A to Z's of Teenagers: J Is for Junk Food

I just watched my husband scarf down three slices of gloriously cheesy sausage pepperoni pizza while I ate, pretending more enthusiasm than I felt, my green salad topped with thinly sliced, skinless, grilled chicken breast. My spinach leaf and cucumber-stuffed mouth watered for just one bite of that pizza. But I’m working very hard on eating healthy these days, so I just glowered at him and attacked my salad with grim gusto.

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I wasn’t always this virtuous. Back when I was Lizzie’s age, my friend Paula and I would walk home from school, stopping along the way for our usual afternoon snack of cans of root beer and bags of Fritos. My home was almost, but not quite, a junk food-free environment. My father loved ice cream, so there was always a half gallon in the freezer. (For years, until I was caught, my weekday breakfast was half a glass of orange juice and three spoonfuls of ice cream, straight from the carton.) In high school, I ditched the nutritious sack lunches my mother so lovingly packed for me and either ate nothing (preferring to gorge on root beer and Fritos later) or made a meal of cafeteria fries and chocolate milk. And, when they served it, that god-awful lunch-lady pizza.

So, yeah, I know junk food up close and personal. I understand the teen/junk food thing. I lived the teen/junk food thing. But as a woman attempting to live a long and healthy life, and as a mother attempting to raise kids who are neither diabetes nor obesity statistics, I’ve banned junk food from the house (with the exception of, every once in a while, a box of Peanut Putter Cap’n Crunch ... because, gee, I’m not a saint). And I can say, smugly, that as a family, we don’t eat at fast food establishments. (I refuse to honor them with the word “restaurant.”)

But junk food/fast food is not just a personal issue, and not just a family issue. It’s a societal issue, a global concern. I recently read that every day more than 65 million people eat a McDonalds meal somewhere on the planet. And that, as a nation, we spend more on junk food than we spend on higher ed, computers and cars combined.

Do you want to spend what mommy capital you have on label reading, nutrition “teaching moments,” dinnertime lectures and Biggie Fry rants?

So when I make rules about junk food in the house, when I rag on Lizzie for eating at McD’s with her new boyfriend, when I make a comment about the occasional Big Gulp vessel (the thing can hardly be called a “cup”) I see on top of the trash, I am swimming against the tide. The ads, the celeb endorsements, the cultural integration of fast food—in movies, songs, casual conversation, sports events—plus our own dastardly evolutionary biology which makes us lust for sweet and fat is against me. Against all of us mothers who want to raise healthy, energetic kids.

For a while I thought, OK, you have to pick your fights here. Do you want to spend what mommy capital you have on label reading, nutrition “teaching moments,” dinnertime lectures and Biggie Fry rants? Isn’t it more important to focus on school and healthy relationships, on mature behavior, on no drugs?

My decision? I’m working on borrowed capital here. I’m remaining focused on school, relationships and behavior ... but I’m not giving up on healthy body talk! It is just too important.

And now, a word from the teenage daughter:

I knew I was going to write about fast food and junk food for the blog, so I forced myself to consume mass quantities this weekend. Ha ha. Not too difficult. McDoubles and McChickens from you-know-where. Along with large fries and a large root beer. Spicy chicken sandwiches from elsewhere. Little Debbie’s snack cakes for dessert. Just throwing out adjectives here: Juicy, tender, succulent, gooey, crunchy, sweet, delectable.

And yes, I know—really bad for you.

I know all of this food is high in sodium, sugar, fat and calories. I’ve learned this in school and at camps and from my doctor and ... from my mother. But I, and all of my friends (and millions of teenagers) still eat the stuff. Why? Well, it tastes good! Also, it’s really cheap. The other day I was scrambling around under the seats of my car to find loose change. I found enough for a large soda AND a double cheeseburger. And it’s convenient. Where else can you get hot food fast at 11 at night? There’s also a social aspect to it. My boyfriend and I go together. Groups of kids go together. And, here’s a shocker: I don’t feel guilty about this at all.

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I know this can’t go on forever. But you’re only young once. I look at what my mom eats, and mostly I think: I’m glad I don’t have to eat like that (I mean, really, Brussels sprouts?) now while my body is forgiving me for all the crap I’m putting in it. But I do see that I’ll have to make changes in the future. I’m going to have to moderate, eat fast food once in a while but not every day. Drink less soda (and fewer Starbuck’s iced mochas) and more water. And I might even eat a carrot or two. So moms who are reading this ... don’t give up hope!

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