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Teens who eat healthy are more likely to keep eating healthy as young adults, study suggests

“Those who had a higher-quality diet were not thinner at age 15, but became thinner by age 20 and 25, particularly if they reinforced their tendency to eat more closely to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans as time passed," said the lead author.
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Teenagers who eat healthy gain less weight as they become young adults than teens with unhealthy diets, according to a study from the University of Minnesota.

That may sound like an obvious conclusion, but what it suggests is that the behavior for healthy eating was set in these people's formative years, and it carried through to adulthood, lead author David Jacobs, a professor in the U's School of Public Health, told BringMeTheNews.

The study, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, ultimately tracked more than 2,600 students at Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools for a decade, checking in after five and 10 years to gauge weight gain and diet during that time.

The researchers found people who had a healthier diet at the start gained less weight over the decade than the people who initially were eating a less-healthy diet.

“Those who had a higher-quality diet were not thinner at age 15, but became thinner by age 20 and 25, particularly if they reinforced their tendency to eat more closely to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans as time passed,” Jacobs said in a news release.

To judge the results, they came up with an expected amount of weight gain for each teen – "You expect people to get bigger from age 15 to 25 because they're not fully grown," Jacobs said – and then compared that number to how much weight they actually added.

"The bigger effect in terms of weight gain is the people who were eating the worst diet and were already a little bit overweight at age 15," Jacobs explained.

So essentially, bad eating habits continued into adulthood, and the consequences of that sort of compounded. But making a change partway through was better than none at all.

"It seemed was though having a healthier diet at either time was better than having it at neither time, in terms of the weight gain," Jacobs said.

You can read the published paper here.

What's a healthy diet?

How did they judge what a "healthy" diet was?

The researchers used a measurement called A Priori Diet Quality Score (or APDQS for short), that is very close to the Dietary Guidelines for America.

That means lots of vegetables, and a variety of them, fruits, whole grains, low-fat or fat-free dairy, lean meats, fish, etc. etc. It also means limiting saturated and trans fats, sodium, and added sugars.

That holistic approach as Jacobs called it – rather than focusing on individual elements such as carbs, sugar, or fat – gives the paper a different perspective, Jacobs said.

"That’s a little bit different than what other people have done," he added.

The study notes those single-item focus diets haven't been effective with children.

Childhood obesity

Obesity has doubled among children, and quadrupled among young adults over the past 30 years, the CDC says.

In 2012, more than one-third of adolescents were considered overweight or obese. That can lead to a host of other health problems for kids, including prediabetes symptoms, high cholesterol or blood pressure, and bone/joint problems.

All that can then carry over into adulthood as well.

The University of Minnesota news release suggests health professionals create and develop ways to get adolescents eating healthier, earlier. And, the release notes, parents should realize their child's tastes might change as they get older.

“Food preferences and attitudes may be established as early as age 15,” Jacobs said in the release. “The choices adolescents make during that stage establish a lifetime diet pattern, which could influence weight gain over time.”

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