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Healthy eating options for teens

Lindsey Zaffarano, a community outreach coordinator for Tops Markets, has developed a program in which she travels to area high schools and talks to students about making healthy eating choices at home and school.

Last week, she brought her presentation to Cheektowaga High School.

Her presentation isn’t one that is cut-and-dry or cheesy, like those all-too-familiar lessons we have all received in health or cooking classes. Rather, she combines the urgency of the widespread obesity crisis in the United States with a wealth of shocking and surprising information about the foods we eat every day. To buttress her presentation, she introduces students to the NuVal (nutritional value) system at Tops, which gives thousands of products on their shelves nutritional scores from 1 to 100. Just like students should strive to achieve higher test scores in school, they should look for and consume products with a higher NuVal score.

There are foods that score as high in the NuVal system as the valedictorians of each school do on tests. Here are some examples that Zaffarano offered for the students at Cheektowaga High School:

Fruits like strawberries, blueberries and kiwi each score a perfect 100, while vegetables like spinach, broccoli florets and romaine lettuce do just as well. In fact, the average NuVal score for any produce item in the store is a 95. Coconuts are the worst, receiving a score of 24, due to their high content of saturated fat. The only other type of food in the store that scores nearly as high as fresh-grown produce is anything organic, and our presenter made sure to reassure the now groaning group of teenagers in the room that there are plenty of other healthy options around.

What about those products that “pretend” to be healthy? These would be those that promise things such as reduced fats and sugars, extra vitamins, real fruit (such as in juices), zero-calorie soda options and special frozen dinners for those on diets. But these foods may not be all that they are cracked up to be. For example, a reduced-fat peanut butter is not necessarily better for you than the regular creamy option. According to Zaffarano, “When they take away fat, they generally have to add another ingredient to make it taste good.”

As for juices, most of which promise real fruit juice, many actually have a nutritional value equivalent to a Twinkie.

And, believe it or not, snacking can be good for you. It keeps your body going between meals. There is, however, a line to be drawn between more nutritious, body-fueling snacks and those your body would be better without. If you must have those potato chips, baked chips scored better.

See if you can guess which one of the following is the healthiest, based on NuVal: Teddy Grahams, fat-free Fig Newtons or Milano cookies. The answer? Teddy Grahams, with a 26. The worst? Milano cookies, which received a 3.

For healthier snack options, try plain yogurt and add some frozen fruit; microwave some not-too-heavily buttered popcorn; or have a bowl of Cheerios and skim milk. Who says that making better eating choices has to be bland and boring?

With the obesity epidemic spreading and the risk of death by heart disease increasing, it’s important to begin thinking about making healthier eating choices at a young age. All it may take is a few simple substitutions.

Boston Kistka is a junior at Cheektowaga High School.

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