So much for three meals a day. Those days are over, at least for today's teens. The average male teenager eats about five times a day, and the average female four times a day, according to a study by New York City-based research firm BuzzBack.
But while many teens seem to be well-fed, others have some serious issues with food. For instance, more than a third (35 percent) of all teen girls (ages 13 to 19) say they often skip meals because they are too busy, 22 percent skip meals as a way of dieting and 21 percent admit that they sometimes binge after skipping meals. The boys' food habits are different, but not much better. About two-thirds (66 percent) say that they drink non-diet colas. Chips are their favorite snack, followed by cookies and candy bars.
There does seem to be some light at the bottom of the vending machine, however. Fully 70 percent of teen girls and 56 percent of boys say they want to improve the way they are eating, according to the BuzzBack report, â€œUnderstanding Teen Attitudes and Behaviors Around Health and Nutrition.â€? The study was conducted online between June 27 and July 1, 2002, among a geographically diverse sample of 521 teens (ages 13 to 19). Respondents were asked questions designed to explore teen attitudes and behaviors related to health and nutrition, and to uncover the role played by gender, age and lifestyle.
The survey findings reveal that at least some teens are making efforts to eat food that's more nutritious. For instance, 42 percent agree with the statement: â€œI try to eat what's right for me as often as I can,â€? 34 percent say that â€œwhen I snack, I like to snack on healthier foods like fruits and vegetables,â€? and 29 percent say that they â€œthink about nutrition a lot when I select the foods that I eat.â€? In addition, a quarter (24 percent) of teen girls, and 15 percent of teen boys, eat vegetarian foods very often or frequently, and 16 percent of each group eat organic products that often.
To exert more control over the food they consume, teenage girls are more likely to prepare their own bag lunch for school (40 percent) than to risk the cafeteria's â€œsurpriseâ€? dish of the day (31 percent). Male teens, however, are more adventurous: 37 percent of them usually eat in the school cafeteria, and just 31 percent brown-bag it. Similarly, while 21 percent of girls typically prepare dinner for themselves, only 13 percent of boys do.
Still, it seems that the promise of being thinner or more attractive is a stronger motivational force for change than better health is, especially for teen girls. Though 54 percent of the boys say they are happy with their current weight, just 38 percent of the girls say the same. And while 26 percent of teenage girls check for calories and fat on nutritional labels, only 14 percent of them check for vitamins or nutrients.
The report recommends that food manufacturers pay attention to the large number of teens, girls in particular, who avoid the school cafeteria, as there may be untapped opportunities for introducing more healthful snacks or on-the-go meal replacements. The authors also make a plea to parents to better inform teens about the downside of emotionally driven eating habits (such as meal skipping and binging) and about the physical and emotional benefits of more consistent eating habits.
Overall, the study's findings show that, even if they don't always eat right, teens are very aware that what they put into their bodies does affect their health. â€œThere is an attitudinal shift toward greater health awareness, and a growing need among this target [group] to look and feel â€˜goodâ€™ as a result of peer, societal and self-inflicted pressures,â€? say the authors of the BuzzBack report. â€œArmed with nutritional knowledge, motivated by the need to protect and promote their self-image and empowered with a greater capacity for choosing what and where they eat, teens are fast becoming a powerful and lucrative force in today's marketing landscape.â€?
For more information, call (212) 529-9104 or visit www.buzzback.com.
PORTRAIT OF A FEMALE TEEN
POP. IN 2000 (AGE 13-19): 13.8 MILLION
- More likely than a male teen to check new products' labels to find out fat and calorie content
- Eats, on average, 4.2 separate times each day
- Her favorite snack: fruit
- Spends 11 hours a week talking on the phone and 16.6 hours per week surfing the Internet and writing e-mails
- Prefers fruit juice with breakfast and water with dinner and lunch
- Very likely to have drunk bottled water in the prior week (69 percent of female teens do) and more than twice as likely as a male teen to drink diet soft drinks
- Almost twice as likely as a male teen to get upset with herself for not eating what's â€œrightâ€?
PORTRAIT OF A MALE TEEN
POP. IN 2000 (AGE 13-19): 14.5 MILLION
- More likely than a female teen to check new products' labels to find out vitamin and nutrient content
- Eats, on average, 4.6 separate times each day
- His favorite snack: chips
- Spends 11.8 hours a week playing video or computer games and 16.2 hours per week surfing the Internet and writing e-mails
- Prefers milk with breakfast and soft drinks with dinner and lunch
- Less likely to crave sweet snacks as he grows older
- More likely than a female teen to feel it is important to get a proper amount of exercise
- Most likely to skip meals as a way of dieting when he is 16 or 17