Obesity among teenagers is a serious and widespread problem. Excess weight and obesity can contribute to health problems during adolescence, a greater risk of obesity in adulthood, and a lifetime risk for illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Research suggests that the best strategy for helping teenagers lose weight is promoting healthy eating habits and healthy activities.
Social and psychological impact
Teenagers are likely as concerned about excess weight as their parents are. Kids are often teased and bullied about their weight. Studies also show that a teenager with an unhealthy weight is at high risk for poor self-esteem, depression and an overall lower quality of life.
Obesity and being bullied about weight are both linked to a risk of developing eating disorders and unhealthy eating habits, such as skipping meals, binge eating, periods of starvation and self-induced vomiting.
Talking about weight
While you probably want to talk to your child about his or her weight, research has shown that weight talk doesn't result in weight loss or healthy decisions among teenagers. Weight talk can include parents talking about their own need to lose weight or talking about their child's weight. Teasing and joking about a child's weight within the family is particularly harmful. Even talking with the best of intentions about your child's weight or encouraging weight loss has been shown to have negative effects. Your teen may still perceive these conversations as hurtful or judgmental.
In fact, weight talk — both the teasing and the well-intentioned comment — is associated with continued weight problems, increased weight, unhealthy dieting habits and a risk of eating disorders. Conversations and strategies that focus on healthy eating habits and healthy activities, however, do promote weight loss and management.
Studies have shown that teenage dieting — restricting calories to lose weight — increases the risk of developing both obesity and eating disorders. Dieting among teenagers often is associated with restricting essential nutrients from food, skipping meals, starving, binge eating, self-induced vomiting and other high-risk eating habits. The use of weight loss pills or laxatives doesn't result in healthy eating habits.
Family strategies for healthy eating
The best strategies for weight loss and management focus on healthy choices for the entire family, with parents serving as role models. These include:
- Eating breakfast. Teenagers who eat breakfast — compared with those who skip it — get more essential nutrients and have better overall eating habits. Whole-grain foods, fruits and low-fat dairy products are good breakfast choices.
- Having family meals. More-frequent family meals at home are associated with a better diet with fruits and vegetables, calcium-rich foods and fiber. Family meals are also linked to fewer poor eating habits such as skipping meals or binge eating.
- Planning and cooking together. Shopping, planning meals and preparing meals with children enables them to learn, practice and have ownership of healthy habits.
- Stocking healthy snacks. Keep healthy snacks on hand, such as fruits, vegetables, hummus, air-popped popcorn and low-fat cheese.
- Serving healthy drinks. Serve water, sparkling water, and low-fat or fat-free milk. Don't stock up on sodas or sweet beverages.
- Limiting screen time. Avoid meals and snacking in front of the television or computer. Extended screen time is associated with poor beverage and snack choices.
- Choosing healthy portions. Serve smaller portion sizes of meats and dairy, and serve larger portions of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Teens need about 60 minutes of physical activity a day — but that doesn't necessarily mean 60 solid minutes at a stretch. For teenagers who are heavier, being physically active can be a challenge because they may be self-conscious about their physical abilities. You can support your child and help reach the goal with the following strategies:
- Emphasize activity, not exercise. Your teenager's activity doesn't have to be a structured exercise program — the object is just to get moving. Walking, bicycling or dancing can be great for burning calories and improving fitness. Assign household chores that require physical movement.
- Find activities your teenager likes. If your teenager is artistically inclined, go on a hike to collect leaves for a collage. Is your teenager into reading? Walk or bike to the library for a book. A child who isn't inclined to play an organized sport might still like playing catch with you at a park.
- If you want an active teenager, be active yourself. Find fun activities that the whole family can do together. Never make exercise seem like a punishment or a chore. Let each family member take a turn choosing the activity of the day or week. Consider batting practice, bowling or swimming. What matters is that you're doing something active.
- Limit screen time. Limit screen time, other than school work, to no more than two hours a day. Establish good electronic habits for the entire family, such as limiting parents' screen time, not using phones or electronics at bedtime or during meals, and turning off devices and putting them away when not in use.
- Tracking activity. Some evidence suggests that wearable electronic fitness trackers may help teenagers set goals and self-monitor their activity levels, particularly when part of an overall plan to support healthy eating and activity choices.
The doctor's role
Keep annual wellness visits with your child's doctor. Your doctor can provide advice on healthy eating habits, suggest reasonable goals for increasing activities and monitor progress in overall health outcomes.