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For Some Teens, Warnings Carry No Weight

Junk-food-loving adolescents shrug off studies that link fat to long-term health risks.

October 02, 2000|MARYANN HUDSON HARVEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The last time 12-year-old Kevin Aguilar ate a vegetable was at lunch, at school. "You know, the salad," he says, gesturing with his hands, "the lettuce they put on a hamburger."

The last time 14-year-old Maeia Zimmerman ate a vegetable was, well, "uh, let's see, uhmm," she says as she shifts about in a booth at McDonald's. Then she shrugs. "I never eat a vegetable intentionally."

Neither Aguilar, a student at Eliot Middle School in Altadena, nor Zimmerman, who attends upscale Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada Flintridge, looks overweight. Neither do they seem overly concerned about their current eating habits, even in the wake of an ominous study about poor nutrition among California teens.

"I'm the deadbeat of the family," says Zimmerman. "The downfall of our nutritional values. My mom is always on me, saying, 'Maeia, you're going to get fat.' And I say, 'But mom, I'm not fat.' And she says, 'OK.' "

Last week, the first comprehensive statewide survey of teen eating and exercise habits revealed that nearly a third of California's adolescents were either overweight or on the verge of it, increasing their long-term risk of chronic disease or premature death.

Half of the 12- to 17-year-olds interviewed by the Berkeley-based Public Health Institute said they hadn't eaten a vegetable the day before, while a third had consumed at least one fast-food meal.

Indeed, whether rich, poor, fat or skinny, many teens seem to need a lifeline to remember when they ate their last vegetable. And many seem as if they couldn't care less.

"I was born big, and I have always been big," says 15-year-old Shanay Thompson, who, after eating pizza for lunch one day last week at John Muir High School in Pasadena stopped at Jim's Burgers in Altadena for an after-school snack. "It doesn't bother me being big. I'm fine--I have self-esteem. And it doesn't slow me down. I do what normal people do. I'm active and walk a lot and do the drill team. I'll go home tonight and maybe I'll dance. Some people think if you're big you'll be discouraged, or that when you're big all you want to do is lose weight, but that's not it."

Thompson said a doctor, after pronouncing her healthy at her last physical, talked to her about shedding a few pounds. She told him she would if she needed to, but decided not to after he told her she was OK for now.

"I suppose if I wanted to fit into a tiny little thing [garment] I might try, but I have never wanted to," she says. "To me, to be a model is kind of crazy--why would you starve yourself and do all sorts of dumb stuff just to be in a magazine? I can see it if you are that way naturally. But to stress yourself just to get on a cover?"

Stopping at Jim's Burgers for an after-school snack of fried zucchini or a hamburger combo is an everyday affair for Thompson and her friend Adrienne Grant, 17. Both say they really don't think about whether the food content or extra pounds are affecting their health. They just think about eating. "You can't predict the future," Grant says.

Current studies, however, do show what the future can hold for overweight youths. Research indicates that certain chronic diseases tied to nutrition and weight, such as type 2 diabetes, are occurring at younger ages, even in childhood. The disease is more prevalent among some ethnic groups, such as African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans, apparently in part due to genetic causes, according to recent research. And in California, according to the study overseen by the state's Department of Health Services, half of the African Americans and more than a third of the Latinos surveyed were overweight or at risk, compared to one-quarter of whites and Asians.

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"The younger kids are way bigger now than they were when I was younger," says Netyra Owens, 17, a slim African American senior at John Muir. "I try to eat right but it's hard. Today, I've had nothing to eat [by 4 p.m.], which isn't good, and I'll probably go home and make a salad. I like to eat a lot of vegetables. But kids now don't get cooked meals at home, and their moms work, and it's hard."

Even in families where nutritious meals are served at home, temptations are available on school campuses at lunch time and also on the way home from school.

"If they had a box of salad at school nobody would buy it," says David Gangitano, 13, a student at La Canada High School. "We would rather buy junk." Gangitano spoke after school, shortly after finishing a double quarter-pounder and a super-size fries at McDonald's.

At many schools, teens can buy soda and candy from vending machines. Fast food is also delivered on many campuses.

At La Canada High, Domino's Pizza is served three times each week on the campus, but is nutritious and made with low-fat cheese, according to La Canada Unified School District food service director Judy Jones.

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