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Does This Count as Dinner?

How to turn typical meals into a healthy teen diet
By Stacy Lu
WebMD Feature

bowl of cheese puffsJordan Williams' idea of a good dinner is a chocolate-flavored cereal followed by a large helping of ice cream, washed down with a canned caffeine drink. The 15-year-old from New Haven, Conn., also has a fondness for fried chicken wings from the local Chinese takeout.

Tasty, sure, but does this count as a meal? Teresa Beach, RD, a dietitian at Sanford Medical Center in Sioux Falls, S.D., gives a big thumbs-down to this high-calorie, nutritionally unbalanced feast. "When you look at the nutritional density in this meal -- the amount of calories vs. the amount of nutrition you get -- these are not the best choices," she says.

Do you and Jordan have a similar idea of what counts as a meal? A 2010 study of American kids found that their top sources of energy are grain desserts, pizza, and sodas. But too many meals like that can leave you with less energy and make it harder for you to concentrate. They can also lead to more serious health problems like high blood pressure, weight gain, and diabetes.

The good news is that you can do damage control when these favorite foods are part of your diet. Here's how you can make little, easy changes to build healthy meals off of your old favorites.

Teen Nutrition: Go for Three of Five

"All foods have their place," Beach says. But high-fat and sugary foods like sodas, fried foods, and desserts are full of "empty" calories -- they can pack on weight without providing any health benefits.

"Ask yourself, 'What am I getting out of these calories?'" Beach says. "Yeah, it tastes good, but can you find something that adds a little bit more nutrition?"

If you're going to eat foods that aren't the most nutritious, try to eat just one per meal. Then, add healthier, nutritious options to make your meal better for you.

Kelsey Heitman, an 18-year-old student in New York City, adds in a few healthy foods like this: "If I'm eating something greasy or not too healthy for me when I'm out to eat, I'll order a side salad," she says. "If I get pancakes, I'll order a bowl of fruit."

By working in healthy foods as you go through your day, you'll get nutrients such as vitamins, fiber, protein, and calcium.

To create a balanced meal, make sure your breakfast, lunch, or dinner includes at least three out of these five food groups:

  • grains -- like whole wheat pasta or bread, oatmeal, or brown rice
  • vegetables
  • fruits
  • lean protein -- like grilled chicken or turkey, fish, or beans
  • low-fat milk, yogurt, or cheese
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