Image: Tiffany Allison
Mike Derer  /  AP
Tiffany Allison, a college nutrition major, pours strawberry smoothies for a group of teens at the workshop. “It’s not too late to make an impact,” on people’s eating habits said researcher Barry Popkin.
updated 9/27/2006 12:53:43 PM ET 2006-09-27T16:53:43

The 13-year-old girl took a whiff of the steamed carrot, then took a taste.

She shook her head no and took the carrot out of her mouth.

“You just have to adjust your taste buds,” her teacher, Towana Wise, told the class of teens. “You’re young, and this is the best time to develop good eating habits. It’s not going to kill you.”

The University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey has been trying hands-on nutrition workshops at its summer program for high school students in the Newark area.

And the kids haven’t been thrilled. Some wanted to know why they had to have things like broccoli, fruit and milk for lunch.

“There was some resistance,” said Clinton Dozier, director of the pre-college program at the School of Health Related Professions. “They needed information about how they could enjoy nutritionally balanced meals.”

They might have needed the information, but it didn’t seem to make the veggies taste any better.

“I don’t like mushy, nasty vegetables,” said Imani Clark, 14, pointing at a plate of greens as onions wafted through the classroom and kitchen. Imani said she eats broccoli, but only with cheese.

Talking to children about nutrition is especially important because of rising obesity rates among American children, said Emma Davis-Kovacs, acting state director for the Department of Agriculture’s division of food and nutrition.

“We have research that is clearly showing that this generation is in jeopardy of having shorter life expectancies because of issues brought on by obesity: type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart conditions,” she said.

About 38 percent of New Jersey’s sixth-graders are obese or overweight, according to a study of almost 2,500 student records from 40 randomly selected public schools. The government estimates about 34 percent of children nationwide are overweight.

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But it’s not clear that education in the teen years is effective, experts say.

“It’s not too late to make an impact,” said Barry Popkin, director of the Interdisciplinary Obesity Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Whether it’s better to do earlier or later, we can’t answer.”

He said there’s not enough research to know if it’s easier to change the eating habits of teens or younger kids.

“In some ways, teenagers are easier because you don’t need the same parental involvement,” he said.

Dozier, of the New Jersey university’s program, said, “We can talk to young folks, and we can give them demonstrations. But if we involve them ... hopefully that will be long-lasting and it will be a lifestyle of healthy eating for them.”

The teens in the summer program not only learn about the food pyramid, they also cook.

In one session, the students blended smoothies with low-fat yogurt and fruit.

“Isn’t yogurt spoiled milk?” asked Briana Salaam, the girl who had spit out the cooked carrot.

No, Wise explained. It’s different.

“We want to get more calcium in your diet for bones,” she said. “It’s better than juice or soda.”

In another session, the students stir-fried carrots and cauliflower, peppers, onions and garlic with light soy.

“If they try it here and there, they might like the different taste,” Wise said. “The more they have them, in the long run they’re going to benefit from the nutrients of these foods.”

Yet in the cafeteria at lunchtime, most of the teens threw away the broccoli.

Colleen Johnson, a dietitian involved in the program says it’s always “very challenging to get the kids to eat a balanced, healthy meal.”

But many of the same kids will be back next summer, she said hopefully, so maybe some of the lessons will sink in.

“It’s really important to keep introducing it and to keep trying different ways to get them to eat healthy food,” she said. “Eventually you usually do strike the right chord.”

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