Why is eating healthy so hard?
Junk food is all around him, but 18-year-old Ernesto is trying to make better choices when he eats. ALSO: an interview with a teen expert who shares ways to eat healthier.
A lot of times when I come home from school, Jack in the Box, McDonald’s or Taco Bell is on the table. When I see the food, especially the hamburgers, I’m tempted. It’s so easy to eat instead of going into the kitchen to get food that would be healthier.
I’ve told my mom, “You know, we can eat something healthier,” but she says she doesn’t have time or she’s tired. I understand that she’s busy. She works during the day and takes nursing classes at night.
She buys fast food for me and my two sisters because it’s a habit. Once she started feeding us junk food, we wouldn’t eat anything else. As a child I ate McDonald’s Happy Meals. I never thought it was unhealthy. It was just food. My family was always busy so I ate more fast food than home-cooked meals.
When I was 13 I realized that what I was eating had made me fat. But I didn’t like eating healthier food because it tasted disgusting to me. But as I got older I didn’t want to be chubby anymore. I felt different because everyone at school was skinny. I was being teased because of my weight. After lunch the other kids would put plates and wrappers in my backpack. Why me? I thought, “Because I’m fat.” But I didn’t know how to lose weight. What did I know about healthy eating?
It was hard to control how much I ate. When I come home from school I make ham and cheese sandwiches for a snack. It starts with one but then I’m still hungry so I make another one. I’ll start doing my homework but then think, “Oh, I’ll just get a sandwich.” I was worried about how many I was eating. I felt like it was too much.
And then there were the cookies. You do not know how fast the Oreos would go. Those three-row packs would not last a day between me, my sisters and my mother. I’d eat them even if I wasn’t hungry because they taste good.
Recently I decided, why not change. I weigh around 180. Being 5 foot 4, a healthy weight for me should be 150. I made it my New Year’s resolution to lose 30 pounds.
At first, every day I would go to the park and run three laps or go to the gym with my mom and walk on the treadmill. But I didn’t change what I ate. My aunt had started eating more vegetables and she lost weight. I realized I could lose weight faster by eating healthier too.
I started eating vegetables at lunch
At school they offered a vegetarian option. I looked at the vegetarian meal, which was a salad. I felt it would be better than the hamburgers, pizza and turkey sandwiches I usually ate for lunch. I asked the front desk attendant to change my eating plan to vegetarian. The next day, lunch was a salad. I’d never eaten salad willingly. “OK, I’ll try it,” I thought. It wasn’t bad. There was lettuce, croutons and a lemon. I ate most of it. After that day I started eating the vegetarian option every day, like mac and cheese, salad and three-bean chili. It wasn’t too bad.
After eating the vegetarian lunches at school I’m starting to realize that some of the foods I used to eat are not good for me. They don’t even taste that good anymore. I was eating a rice bowl from a fast food chain and the vegetables tasted like bleach. It was disgusting.
I have tried to eat healthier at home too but it’s harder because I have more unhealthy options.
When my mother cooks, she makes what my dad feels like eating. My father does physical work as a mechanic. He comes home and expects the traditional family thing where food is already made for him. He wants anything with meat in it, typical Hispanic food—chicken with rice, beans and tortillas, pupusas, carne stew. If my mom cooked healthier nobody but me would like it. What would be the point? And what am I going to cook? I don’t know anything about cooking.
My neighborhood is full of fast food and old produce
I live in Watts in South Central L.A. There are taco places, fast food and liquor stores. It’s hard to make healthy choices. Most of the produce in the grocery store doesn’t look fresh. I get home and my mom has bought fast food hamburgers for dinner. “Dammit. I want to eat something else.” Even the choices in my fridge aren’t that healthy. Recently I looked in my fridge and I saw a cucumber, broccoli and old potatoes that had eyes growing on them. The bananas were spoiled. Also, there is too much junk food and canned food. There’s Chef Boyardee ravioli, frozen burritos and Cup Noodles, which has a lot of salt.
I’ve tried to convince my mom so many times to buy something that’s healthy.
“Mom, why can’t we buy food that’s better than this?”
“We can’t because I’m too far from the stores that have better produce and it costs too much,” she says. “Your sisters don’t want to eat healthy.”
I don’t say anything anymore. I understand how hard it is. It’s cheaper to buy the crappy food. I wish there were more salads and homecooked food not from a can in my house so it would be easier to eat healthier. But I don’t blame it all on my mother or my family. I have to make better decisions for myself.
To learn more, I talked to Andres Chopin, a student at Jefferson High School who is part of an after-school program where students learn to cook and they’re taught ways to eat healthy. Jefferson High is located in a high-poverty neighborhood, like my school is. Andres said it’s better to eat whole foods, like vegetables, fruit and whole grains, which don’t have added ingredients. Processed foods don’t give you as many nutrients. He said to try to eat simple foods like apples. Or you can sauté onions to make them taste better. I’ve never cooked before. I thought, “I’m going to burn things.” I may not be able to cook but I can prevent myself from eating things that are bad for me.
I learned from Andres to look more closely at food labels for ingredients that I know are bad for me, like partially hydrogenated oil, which means there are trans fats. Now I’m more aware of which foods I can eat more of and which I should eat less of.
If you go to a convenience store, it’s hard to avoid all the junk food. But it doesn’t hurt to try. Junk food is unhealthy and people should try to eat less of it. If you look around you’ll find trail mix and water, which are better than Hot Cheetos and a Coke. Or if you want chips you can get Kettle Chips. They aren’t as bad for you as other brands because they don’t have MSG (monosodium glutamate), which is added to food. They have natural ingredients like sunflower oil and potatoes.
I’ve been eating more fruit but not as much as I should. I’m going to try to eat more by eating the fruit after my mother gets groceries. That way it’s fresh and tastes better.
I’m getting better about not going into the kitchen to see what there is to eat after I’ve already eaten. I keep myself busy with homework, video games or reading books.
Breaking a habit that you’ve had since you were young is not easy. I want to lose weight the healthy way, something I can control for the rest of my life. With time and self-control I know I can do it. I can take looking into the mirror two ways—feeling bad about myself or empowering myself to change. I choose to encourage myself. I see it as a challenge I’m willing to take on. Coming home I look in the kitchen and see all the ingredients for a ham and cheese sandwich, frozen food and Cup Noodles. I honestly have given in, but I have patience and know I can’t be so hard on myself.
After a month I lost 10 pounds. Going to the gym really helped me. But I stopped because my mother has to go to school and can’t take me to the gym anymore. But I’m not going to stop trying to eat better. The changes I’ve made remind me to keep on going. I can still do better.
|Like this story? To help ensure that talented teens in Los Angeles County can continue to write stories about health and nutrition, please donate to L.A. Youth.
Click here to check out the L.A. Youth Healthy Cooking on a Budget Challenge. We told our teen staff that they couldn’t spend more than $7 per dish. We chose that amount because $7 is about how much a family on food stamps has to spend on a meal. We wanted to show that healthy cooking can be affordable.
Other stories by this writer …
Time to be counted. Filling out the census doesn’t take long and helps your community, says 18-year-old Ernesto. (January – February 2010)
Taking on teen pregnancy. The play Ernesto, 17, was part of taught him and his classmates about the consequences of sex. (October 2010)
Music to soothe my soul. Because it’s full of emotion, Ernesto, 17, prefers classical music over everything else. (May – June 2009)
I’m a loner but not lonely. It was worth the struggle for Ernesto, 16, to make friends, even though he still likes spending time alone. (September 2008)