(Health Behavior News Service)—Despite recent national initiatives to encourage healthy eating habits, teens in middle adolescence are eating fewer fruits and vegetables than in 1999, a new study reveals. And the situation only worsens as they get older.

“Fruit and vegetable intake is important for the prevention of future chronic disease,” says lead investigator and registered dietitian Nicole Larson, MPH. “So it’s important to know whether intakes of teens are approaching national objectives for fruit and vegetable consumption.”

Larson and colleagues from the University of Minnesota undertook the study to examine whether teens in the state were increasing their intake of fruits and vegetables as recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Healthy People 2010 objectives and Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The study, part of a larger initiative on factors influencing adolescents’ eating habits, gathered information about fruit and vegetable intake among 944 boys and 1,161 girls in 1999 and again in 2004. The study appears in the February issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

During the transition from middle school or junior high to high school, teens decreased their intake of fruits and vegetables by almost 1 serving per day, Larson and colleagues found—from roughly 4 servings to 3 servings for girls and roughly 2.5 to fewer than 2 servings for boys. They also found that from high school to early adulthood, the teens decreased their consumption by almost the same amount.

The researchers also compared consumption of fruits and vegetables between one group of middle adolescents in 1999 and another in 2004. They found that mid-adolescent girls in 2004 consumed almost one serving per day less than girls the same age in 1999. Mid-adolescent boys were also eating about a half serving less of fruits and vegetables in 2004 than in 1999.

“This is giving us the message that we need new and enhanced efforts to increase fruit and vegetable intake that we haven’t been doing in the past,” Larson says.

“I was surprised by the magnitude of the reduction in fruit and vegetable consumption,” says Karen Glanz, PhD, a professor and research scholar at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, who is not associated with the study. “I wasn’t surprised that there would be a reduction because of the lifestyle of today’s teens.”

Dr. Glanz cites the increase over the last 10 to 15 years in the amount, variety and availability of processed and fast food as a major cause of the trend toward less healthful food choices among adolescents.

While both Larson and Dr. Glanz say there’s little research investigating exactly why adolescents might be choosing to eat fewer fruits and vegetables, they both agree that just educating teens about healthful food choices is not enough.

“Teaching adolescents that fruits and vegetables are healthy isn’t going to help. They already know that,” Dr. Glanz says.

“We need to address things going on in the environment, in the community or at home to help adolescents increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables,” Larson adds.

Environmental interventions could include increasing the availability and palatability of fruit and vegetables at school, in restaurants and at home, as well as decreasing the availability of less healthful, highly palatable foods. And research shows that more frequent family meals can help adolescents eat more healthfully.

“Parental and family attitudes are very important,” Larson says.

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