Golden-State Teens at Health Risk, Survey Says

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The stereotype of the tanned, energetic and athletic Californian teenager is under attack - the state's adolescents are more likely to be overweight, eat junk food and watch too much TV, according to a recently published survey.

The study, conducted in 1998 by the non-profit, Berkeley-based Public Health Institute, asked more than 1,200 randomly selected 12- to 17-year-olds specific questions about their eating and exercise habits. It found that nearly one in three adolescents was overweight, or at substantial risk of becoming overweight - twice the expected amount.

The report also found that a large proportion of the state's teenagers suffer from physical inactivity and poor nourishment. Only 29 percent of those surveyed reported getting the recommended one hour of daily physical activity, and just two percent met all dietary and exercise health standards. Almost 70 percent of adolescents surveyed also said they ate two or more "unhealthy foods" a day - a category that included fried foods and pastries.

Dr. Carmen Nevarez, vice president of the institute, said the survey results presented an unexpected profile of the state's teenagers.

"The lanky, healthy California teen with boundless energy is a myth," Nevarez said. "These findings paint a far more disheartening picture - one of a listless, TV-bound kid snacking on potato chips."

Nevarez explained that while there has been evidence of weight gain in the state as a whole, it is particularly alarming to see adolescents also putting on unnecessary pounds.

"The effects of such unhealthy behavior are already becoming apparent," Nevarez said. "We've seen a three-fold increase in Type 2 diabetes among teenagers in the last 15 years - a disease we used to refer to as adult-onset diabetes - and there's a rather grim association between weight, inactivity and the beginnings of heart disease," Nevarez said.

The report lists several other health implications of unhealthy lifestyles among adolescents.

"All available evidence suggests that if these risk factors remain unchecked, high rates of hypertension, high blood cholesterol, stroke and cancer will follow," the report states.

Research scientist Sharon Sugerman, who helped write the report, said the most disturbing aspect of the survey was the wide range of problematic attitudes and habits.

"We didn't just find that some teenagers were eating too much of the wrong types of food, or some weren't exercising," Sugerman said. "Instead, we discovered that a lot of teens could be put into several categories of unhealthy behavior."

Sugerman argued that teenagers were not solely to blame for their unhealthy lifestyle, and that society needed to first recognize the problem in order to find a solution.

"It really requires a joint effort from teens, parents and teachers and others in the community who have an interest in adolescent health to change attitudes and unhealthy habits," Sugerman said. "We need to make healthy eating and regular exercise the easiest choice for young people."

Nancy Spradling, the California Parent Teacher Association's vice president for health, agreed that the cultural environment in which children grow up is to blame for much of their subsequent health problems.

"Our children are the unlucky recipients of a world that puts speed, profit and convenience before health," Spradling said. "We have to turn these numbers around and we have to commit ourselves to sweeping personal, political and institutional changes."


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