Every day you hear more about the problem of obesity in the U.S. Excess body weight causes many serious health problems, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. But American children and teens are not only overweight; they are also physically unfit and have a poor quality diet.

Every day you hear more about the problem of obesity in the U.S. Excess body weight causes many serious health problems, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. But American children and teens are not only overweight; they are also physically unfit and have a poor quality diet. So even though they eat more calories than they need for their daily activity level, the food is low quality. Among those with the worst diets are preteen and teen females. What are they doing wrong? What does that mean for their future? What simple steps could they take with your help to make their diets and their risk of health problems better?

Our best measurement for nutrition comes from the U.S. Dietary Guidelines (see www.mypyramid.gov). They suggest vegetables, fruits, whole grains and fiber, low-fat milk and dairy, and quality protein like fish, nuts, beans and lean meat. In 2005, for the first time, everyone's daily calories were tied to their daily activity levels. For a 9- to 13-year-old girl who is not very active, they suggest eating about 1600 calories per day, and no more than 130 calories of high fat or sugar foods and drinks. That is not many calories, when a single fast food meal easily may top 1500 calories. For an active girl, the calories go up as high as 2200 and 290 calories of snacks. The guidelines also stress this important message: make every calorie count. Pick nutrient-rich foods and drinks, but stay away from those that have lots of calories, but may not have many nutrients. It is more than just keeping calories, fats and sugars low. Make sure your foods make you healthy more fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals.

Some time in late grade-school, young females begin to make poor food choices. They start skipping meals, especially breakfast. They rely on vending machines, fast food and snacks. They cut out dairy products and drink more sweetened soft drinks and juices instead. They start dieting (tell them: "diets don't work!"). As a result, there are often many nutrients missing from their diet. Look at the list: calcium and vitamin D, vitamins A, C and E, folate, fiber, zinc, among others. How can you help to make their diet work for your child and teen? Emphasize these things:

Eat meals as a family and be a model for good food choices. Cut down on meals away from home, especially at fast food places. Offer food portions that fit your child's age. For a 9-13 year old, breakfast should be around of their daily calories, or 400 calories; lunch about 550 calories, dinner about 550 calories and one snack making up the rest, around 150 calories. Dump the sweet drinks and juices. Girls need low-fat milk and dairy products (cheese and yogurt, for example) at meals or snacks and only water in between. Don't let kids eat in front of the TV. Work in five servings of fruits and vegetables daily into meals and snacks. Eat a quality breakfast every day.