Eating a burger and fries or pizza is fine once in awhile, but if high-calorie, high-fat meals become the norm, a bad habit has formed that could threaten long-term good health.

How Kids’ Bad Habits Lead to Health Crises

Those little habits you learn as a kid could come back to bite you as an adult. Learn from these experts why it’s so important to teach kids healthy habits, before they become a statistic.

Sneaking a smoke. Supersizing that burger order. Trading outdoor play for indoor media entertainment. It can all start so innocently. But those seemingly innocuous choices may develop into habits that lead to a decreased quality of life or even a shorter lifespan. Smoking, overeating, abusing alcohol or drugs and/or being inactive can contribute to major health hazards down the road.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can help can help the kids in your life to avoid forming such bad habits in the first place.


Each day, an estimated 3,800 youths smoke their first cigarettes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Decades ago, teens who smoked wanted to look cool, to be considered risk takers. Today, many of those smokers know that tobacco is compromising their health, but feel incapable of quitting. Effects can vary, depending on the length and severity of the habit and a person’s general health. The caustic chemicals in cigarette smoke are capable of damaging every cell and organ in the body, from scalp to toenail.

Dr. Raja Sharma, a board-certified cardiologist at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington, sees firsthand how smoking affects the heart. Inhaling smoke causes blood vessels to narrow, accelerating substantially the buildup of plaque. The waxy substance inhibits blood flow in arteries, increasing the risk of heart attack.

“Even with milder habits, smoking can cause plaque to break up, leading to a heart attack,” he says. “In fact, smoking triples the chances of a patient suffering a heart attack at any age. Quitting doesn’t reverse the effects of smoking on the heart, but it does help to slow the progression of plaque buildup.”

Sharma sees patients in their 70s and 80s who began smoking in the 1930s. He calls them the lucky ones, because they’ve somehow beaten those tripled odds.

Besides your heart, your digestive tract is also at risk. “Because the caustic elements in smoke penetrate every cell in the body, this habit naturally poses health problems throughout the digestive system,” says Dr. Lawrence Kosinski, a board-certified gastroenterologist at Sherman Hospital in Elgin. “Acid reflux, ulcers, digestive tract inflammation and several diseases are made worse by smoking. One example is Crohn’s Disease, an inflammatory disease of the intestine, which affects about 1 million Americans. Smoking increases flare-ups of this disease.”

Symptoms of Crohn’s include abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting and weight loss. Because Crohn’s impacts the digestive system from the patient’s mouth all the way to the anus, its effects can crop up anywhere in the body, and even result in skin rashes, arthritis and eye inflammation. Smoking cessation is an important component of the treatment plan, says Kosinski.

“Oddly, ulcerative colitis, another form of inflammatory bowel disease, actually improves when a patient uses nicotine,” he says. “We’ve even prescribed nicotine patches. But this is an exception.Overwhelmingly, patients improve from whatever digestive issues they are facing when they stop smoking.”

Because smoking harms nearly every part of the body, including the heart, blood vessels, lungs, eyes, mouth, reproductive organs, bones, bladder and digestive system, it is blamed for one in every five deaths in America.

Smoking’s adverse effects are preventable, as are the dietary challenges this habit presents. Smoking may decrease both the appetite and sense of taste, leading to poor intake of necessary nutrients and less enjoyment of food, says Meg Burnham, a registered dietitian at Centegra’s Health Bridge Fitness Centers in Huntley and Crystal Lake.

“Smoking causes stress to the body, which increases its need for additional nutrients such as vitamin C,” Burnham says. “Smokers tend to take in less of these vital nutrients.”

Weight gain is often a consequence of smoking cessation. 

“When a person stops smoking, the act is commonly replaced with snacking in the absence of hunger,” Burnham explains. “If food choices are poor, excess calorie intake will lead to weight gain. Those who stop smoking can prevent weight gain by choosing fruits and vegetables as their snack choices.”

Munching on sunflower seeds in the shell, or chewing gum, can help to prevent mindless snacking.

“Smoking places stress on the entire body and can lead to myriad consequences including but not limited to cancer and heart disease,” Burnham says. “Years of smoking affect appearance, through poor dental health, poor skin tone and unhealthy hair.”

Alcohol and Substance Abuse

Alcohol and substance abuse can also cause dangerous, even fatal, health conditions.

“Patients suffer the ramifications of alcohol abuse all the time,” Kosinski says. “We are frequently consulted at Sherman Hospital to see patients with liver failure resulting from alcoholic hepatitis.”

It’s not just a man’s disease. “We’ve treated young women still in their 30s, whose livers are dying from excessive alcohol use,” Kosinski explains. “Women have a much smaller body mass, so alcohol impacts their livers and other digestive functions at a younger age.”

“In some patients I see at Advocate Good Shepherd, alcohol has diminished the heart’s pumping efficiency,” says Sharma. “These patients have symptoms that include fluid buildup, which can cause congestive heart failure. They are also prone to arrhythmia – an irregular heart beat – and may progress into atrial fibrillation.”

As with smoking, people who abuse alcohol often replace food with alcohol, adds dietician Burnham.

“The stress that alcohol places on the liver increases the need for nutrients, but those who abuse alcohol tend to lack these nutrients in their diets,” Burnham says. “The consequences of malnutrition are poor muscle tone, low energy and increased risk for illness. Further, excess alcohol increases visceral fat, the dangerous fat located beneath the muscle layer of the abdomen and surrounding the organs.”

Sometimes, other bad habits exacerbate the problem, causing further damage.

“Oftentimes, excess alcohol intake at social events leads to poor food choices and larger portions, and if this occurs regularly, overweight is a likely outcome,” says Burnham. “On the other hand, if alcohol intake starts to replace meals and snacks, very serious health consequences are likely to result due to the toxicity of the alcohol, coupled with poor nutrient intake. This person may experience a loss of muscle with an increase in visceral abdominal fat.”

Like alcohol abusers, those who abuse drugs face many threats to their vital organs.

Misusing over-the-counter pain medications can severely damage the liver. Kosinski has seen patients at Sherman Hospital’s gastrointestinal department whose chronic pain syndrome has led to abuse of over-the-counter pain relievers, particularly Tylenol. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, aspirin and naproxen, can also cause bleeding ulcers if taken too often.

“There’s a lethal dose in every bottle,” Kosinski says. “A patient can take an entire bottle of Tylenol and not see any adverse effects for 24 to 48 hours. It gives a false sense of security. But suddenly, after this short period, the patient may suffer total liver failure.”

Kosinski has also seen liver damage in patients who are “huffing” – abusing aerosol in spray cans.

“While the resultant damage is not chronic, a lot depends on how much and how often the patient huffed in a short period of time,” he says. “Huffing can cause the liver to fail in a remarkably short period of time.”

Hearts are also vulnerable to the effects of substance abuse. As a cardiologist, Sharma sees patients who suffer life-threatening reactions after using cocaine.

“Cocaine use can cause blood vessels to spasm, which can in turn lead to a heart attack, sometimes with little or no warning,” Sharma says. “Also, smoking marijuana has the same adverse effect as smoking cigarettes, in that the chemicals within the smoke are carried to every cell in the body.”

Obesity and Lack of Exercise

Obesity affects more than one-third of the population, according to the CDC. Being overweight, coupled with being sedentary, adds up to potential health problems. Burnham reports that, according to the McHenry County Healthy Community Study 2010, 59.2 percent of McHenry County residents age 20 and above are overweight or obese. She adds that three of the top five leading causes of death in the county – heart disease, cancer and stroke – may be influenced by diet and exercise. 

“Being overweight or obese further increase the risk for these chronic diseases,” Burnham says. “Excess weight in childhood has been correlated with higher and earlier death rates in adulthood.”

Being overweight or obese at any age causes life-altering psychological consequences including poor self-esteem and depression.
“On the positive side, small lifestyle changes go a long way in improving weight and, more importantly, health,” she says. “Changing diet and activity should be a gradual process that leads to sustainable habits. For example, losing just 10 pounds can result in improved blood pressure. Eliminate 100 calories from your current diet every day, and lose 10 pounds in a year. Most Americans can easily do this, by decreasing or eliminating the creamer or sugar in their coffee, switching from sweetened drinks to diet drinks or water, or eating one less sweet daily.”  

It’s important to remember that people come in different shapes and sizes, and an appropriate weight for one person isn’t necessarily the right weight for another. The better measure of success is evaluating nutrition and activity habits specific to an individual. 

Centegra Health Bridge Fitness Centers offer comprehensive nutrition and weight-loss programming. The Simply Weight Loss programs, led by Burnham, last from three months to one year and include nutrition consultations and metabolic analysis to determine calorie needs.

“Look at the big picture of your diet, not just one meal or snack,” Burnham advises. “It’s your overall eating habits that matter. If you eat the right foods, in the right amounts, and stay physically active, you will find your healthy self.”
Next to smoking, obesity may be most damaging to hearts.

“Overweight leads to other factors, including high blood pressure, the onset of diabetes, and high cholesterol, all of which put patients at risk for heart disease,” cardiologist Sharma says. “Overweight also leads to sedentary habits, because exercise is harder when a person is carrying excess weight.”

Cross-effects that can harm the heart include obstructive sleep apnea, fluid buildup in the lungs and extremities, and irregular heart rhythm.

“The longer overweight and lack of exercise persist, the better the odds that it will eventually hurt the heart,” Sharma says.
Gastrointestinal disorders such as acid reflux and diverticulosis can also be attributed to being overweight and sedentary.

“Most of these patients are not only eating too heavily but also are eating the wrong foods,” Kosinski says. “We calculate their body mass index routinely, and find that roughly two-thirds have an above-normal result. It just kills me to see children come in overweight and with sedentary habits. All ages are now developing metabolic syndrome that stems from obesity and results in high blood pressure, diabetes and liver disease.”

In such cases, dietetic counseling aimed at preventing these and other diseases can be very helpful.

“We live in a different time,” says Kosinski. “Life is stressful for most people, who work too hard and too long, and have less time to spend with children and family. They are simply too tired to exercise, and have resorted to being entertained by media. There’s no such thing as going for a walk with the children any more. It’s a shame. I wish we could see less dependency on medications and more focus on simple, healthy living. This trend may start in childhood, but it definitely carries over into adult issues.”

Sadly, the choices people make early in life may result in a lifelong losing battle against disease. Whether we’re talking about smoking, abusing alcohol or other drugs, overeating or being inactive, children and adults alike should heed this advice: “If you don’t do it, don’t start. If you do it, stop now.”