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Fueling TweensFueling Tweens

November 1, 2004

5 Min Read
Fueling Tweens

Nutrition for the "tween" population -- children between the ages of 9 to 12 -- has been on the "hot seat" of late. Rising obesity rates in kids, coupled with the decrease in physical activity, gives everyone from parents to doctors to food-industry professionals a cause for concern.

Overweight kids are more likely than their normal-weight counterparts to incur a lifetime risk of coronary heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and certain cancers, such as cervical and breast cancer. That's why the tween stage is important: It's a critical time for kids to explore good nutrition and physical activities they enjoy, which can help them develop and maintain healthy lifestyles as they get older.   

Tween nutrition scene

According to the most-recent Healthy Eating Index published in 2002 by USDA, kids' diet quality takes a major plunge around ages 11 to 14 as compared to ages 7 to 10, with males ranking slightly lower than females in overall quality. And compared to diet-quality scores from 1994 to 1996, the value continues to drop. Specifically, when overall nutrients and food servings are reviewed, tweens have a ways to go to meet recommendations.  

Additional research estimates that more than 60% of 6- to 11-year-olds do not meet their calcium needs, a major concern, because tweens need adequate intakes (1,300 mg per day) to optimize calcium deposits for lifelong bone health. Almost 50% of boys and nearly 60% of girls do not get the recommended servings of dairy daily. Additionally, more than 70% of both girls and boys this age do not eat adequate fruits or vegetables, and nearly 40% of boys and over 50% of girls do not consume adequate grains.

More than 70% of boys and nearly 90% of girls also fall short of the Food Guide Pyramid's goals for meats. This can promote low intakes of iron and zinc, which can affect energy levels in and out of school. Studies also find tween diets often are low in vitamins C and E, as well as B vitamins.

These statistics are important for tweens, as this is a key time for the body's growth and maturation. The adolescent growth spurt typically begins at ages 10 to 11 for girls and peaks at 12, while for boys it begins at ages 12 to 13 and peaks at 14. Even moderate undernutrition can have lasting negative effects on cognitive development and school performance. Iron-deficiency anemia can lead to irritability, fatigue, inability to concentrate and shortened attention span. And low protein consumption in this age group is linked to low academic-achievement scores.  

Nutrition versus image

Tweens often end up in a Catch 22 situation. They might be overweight and underactive, but at the same time, this is the age when they tend to pay a sometimes inappropriate and potentially harmful amount of attention to appearance, weight and body image. In the new Nickelodeon/Youth Intelligence Tween Report, a lifestyle study of 9- to 14-year-olds, 14% said they worry about their weight, while 8% had been on a diet. If kids -- especially girls -- have a significant adult in their lives on a diet, they are more apt to diet. And research has shown that trendy, low-carb diets also trickle down to tweens.

With more families on the go, the trend toward eating on the go at fast-food restaurants has risen. Fewer tweens sit down with their families for meals. Yet research indicates that children who eat meals at home with their families typically have a better-quality diet than those who do not, as well as higher intakes of several key nutrients, including calcium, iron, folate, fiber and vitamins C, E, B6 and B12. Some studies also indicate lower intakes of saturated and trans-fatty acids when kids eat more meals at home.

The right message

According to Wendy Reinhardt, M.S., R.D., associate director for health and nutrition, International Food Information Council (IFIC), Washington, D.C., one of the biggest challenges is trying to communicate good-nutrition information to kids and making it attractive to them. She notes that tweens often view nutrition as "boring" and look at it as mandatory rules like "having to eat all of your fruits and vegetables" and "not getting to eat what you want."

On the other hand, because tweens are going through so many changes, it's an optimal time to get sound nutrition and health information to them in a way they can relate to. Helping kids see that eating well and staying fit helps them not only be healthy, but offers other benefits, like having a better appearance or performing better in sports, works well with tweens. The website www. kidnetic.com, launched in 2002 by IFIC and several partners, focuses on helping tweens optimize health in a fun and interactive way, and encourages interaction with parents, as well.  

What a tween wants

In August 2004, Aramark Corporation, Philadelphia, released key research findings from a study identifying lunchroom habits of tweens and older teens. The drop in participation in school-lunch programs in middle school and high school also poses a challenge. The key is creating a menu that offers kids what they want, but also is healthy.

"For the middle-school market, we found that wacky colors, extreme flavors and branding of menu items were some of the keys," says Carolina Lobo, vice president of marketing, Aramark School Support Services. Bringing in new menu items, like the "Crazy Chicken Club," "Meatball Bomber" and the "Inside-Outer," blend attention-getting names with new twists to sandwiches and main dishes. While older teens want more-hip foods, like sushi, the tween market wants fun, silly, quirky and gross foods, says Lobo. "These kids thrive on change."

Food manufacturers have the task of developing new products that enhance the health and well being of tweens, are high in key nutrients and taste great, and are fun and funky. If the food doesn't pass the "cool barometer," tweens might take a pass.

Susan Kundrat, M.S., R.D., L.D., is the owner of Nutrition on the Move, a sports and wellness nutrition consulting business in Champaign, IL. She also is an outreach dietitian for the University of Illinois Functional Foods for Health Program, Urbana-Champaign.

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