Teenage obesity is a serious — and widespread — problem. While there's no magic bullet for teen weight loss, there's plenty you can do to help. Start by encouraging your teen to adopt healthy habits.
Have a heart-to-heart
If your teen is overweight, he or she is probably as concerned about the excess weight as you are. Aside from health risks, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, the social and emotional fallout of being overweight can be devastating for a teenager. He or she might experience teasing, bullying, depression or low self-esteem. Your teen also might be frustrated by previous attempts to lose weight that haven't worked.
Offer support and understanding — and a willingness to help your teen manage the problem. You might say, "I can't change your weight. But I can help you make healthy decisions."
Dispute unrealistic images
Weight and body image can be delicate issues. When it comes to teen weight loss, remind your teen that there's no single ideal weight and no perfect body — a healthy body comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. The right weight for one person might not be the right weight for another.
Rather than talking about "fat" and "thin," encourage your teen to focus on practicing the behaviors that promote a healthy weight and satisfaction with body size and shape. Your child's doctor can help set realistic goals for body mass index and weight based on your teen's age, height and general health.
Resist quick fixes
Help your teen understand that losing weight — and keeping it off — is a lifetime commitment. Fad diets can rob your growing teen of iron, calcium and other essential nutrients. Weight-loss pills and other quick fixes don't address the root of the problem and could pose risks of their own. Even then, the effects are often short-lived. Without a change in habits, any lost weight is likely to return.
Teens need about 60 minutes of physical activity a day — but that doesn't necessarily mean 60 solid minutes at a stretch. Shorter, repeated bursts of activity during the day can help burn calories, too.
To help get your teen moving:
- Emphasize activity, not exercise. Your teenager's activity doesn't have to be a structured exercise program — the object is just to get him or her moving. Skateboarding, jumping rope or dancing can be great for burning calories and improving fitness.
- Find activities your teenager likes. If your teenager is artistically inclined, go on a hike to collect leaves for a collage. If he or she likes a physical challenge, try a climbing wall. Is your teenager into reading? Walk or bike to the neighborhood library for a book.
- 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.
Consider setting limits on your teen's screen time, too. Too much or poor quality screen time has been linked with obesity. Or encourage your teen to use technology to track his or her activity level.
A nutritious breakfast will give your teen energy to face the day ahead. Even better, it might keep your teen from eating too much later in the day. If your teen resists high-fiber cereal or whole-wheat toast, suggest last night's leftovers. Even a piece of string cheese or a small handful of nuts and a piece or two of fruit can do the job.
Encourage smart snacking
It can be tough to make healthy choices when vending machines and fast food abound, but it's possible. Encourage your teen to replace even one bag of chips or order of fries a day with a healthier grab-and-go option from home, including:
- Grapes, oranges, strawberries or other fresh fruit
- Sliced red, orange or yellow peppers
- Cherry tomatoes
- Baby carrots
- Low-fat yogurt
- String cheese
- Air-popped popcorn without butter
Watch portion sizes
When it comes to portions, size matters. Encourage your teen to scale back, eat slowly, and stop eating when he or she is full. Try using smaller plates. Add more fruits or vegetables to meals. An occasional indulgence is OK, but even then there's no shame in sharing a meal, ordering a smaller portion or skipping dessert.
Count liquid calories
The calories in soda, fruit juice, sports drinks and specialty coffees can add up quickly. Drinking water instead of sugary drinks might spare your teen hundreds of calories a day — or even more. For variety, suggest calorie-free flavored water, seltzer water or water with a slice of lemon.
Make it a family affair
Rather than singling out your teen, adopt healthier habits as a family. After all, eating healthier foods and getting more exercise is good for everyone.
- Stock up on fruits, veggies and whole grains. Keep these foods in plain sight.
- Leave junk food at the grocery store. Healthy foods are possible for any budget.
- Eat fast food less often. When you do, try to choose healthier options, such as water instead of soda or fruit slices instead of fries.
- Keep food in the kitchen. Eat at the kitchen counter or table — not on the couch while watching TV or playing computer or video games.
- Limit screen time. Trade screen time for family activities, such as playing catch or hiking. Avoid eating while viewing an electronic screen; it keeps you from being aware of how much you're eating.
- Don't focus on food. Make physical activity a topic of family conversations, rather than what or how much anyone is eating.
Being overweight doesn't inevitably lead to a lifetime of low self-esteem. Still, your acceptance is critical. Listen to your teen's concerns. Comment on his or her efforts, skills and accomplishments. Make it clear that your love is unconditional — not dependent on weight loss.
If your teen is struggling with low self-esteem or isn't able to cope with his or her weight in a healthy manner, consider working with a weight management specialist or a dietitian. Or enroll your teen in a weight management program. Additional support can give your teen the tools to counter social pressure, cultivate more positive self-esteem, better manage his or her weight, and live a healthier lifestyle.