Teens and Obesity

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that obesity among adolescents (age 12 to 19) has increased from 5% in 1980 to 18% in 2008. Unfortunately, these teens are facing serious heath consequences as a direct result of obesity, such as: asthma; stress on bones and joints in the legs, including blount disease and arthritis; sleep apnea; high blood pressure; high cholesterol; gallstones; diabetes; and depression. These problems only increase if the child maintains a high weight into adulthood, which most obese teens do.

Doctors determine whether a child is at a healthy weight, overweight, or obese by calculating the child’s body mass index (BMI). The CDC offers an online BMI calculator for teens: http://apps.nccd.cdc.gov/dnpabmi/Calculator.aspx.

In addition to the health consequences, teens who are obese often have to deal with social discrimination, which can be devastating. Overweight or obese teens often have low self esteem which keeps them from joining in many activities and sports with other teens. This creates a viscous cycle where obese teens start staying home (snacking and watching TV) instead of going out. This just causes them to gain even more weight and feel even worse about themselves.

What Causes Teen Obesity?

The cause of teen obesity is generally lack of physical activity combined with unhealthy eating habits. Some children spend hours sitting in front of computers, video games, or televisions. Other teens engage in a diet that consists of greasy fast food, sugary snacks, and large portion sizes at restaurants. It is not that teenagers are being completely inactive but they are not doing the physical activity that is required for them to burn the excessive amount of calorie intake that they have each day.

How to Fight Teen Obesity?

The key to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight isn’t about short-term dietary changes. It’s about a lifestyle that includes healthy eating, regular physical activity, and balancing the number of calories consumed with the number of calories used. It is a habit that must be adopted for a lifetime. It is important that parents model healthy behaviors for their teens. Here are some tips:

  • Exercise. Regular physical activity burns calories and builds muscle — both of which help you look and feel good and keep weight off. Walking the family dog, playing ball with friends, cycling to school, swimming, taking a dance or karate class, and doing other things that increase your daily level of activity can all make a difference. Help your teen find something he or she enjoys that gets them moving and encourage them to keep doing it! Remind teens that the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn, even when you aren’t exercising. There are gyms and other sport and recreational activities in and around every neighborhood which can be used by teens and adults, so consider joining as a family. Many of these activities are free and many sports are also free to get started such as running, walking or swimming.
  • Reduce screen time. One reason people get less exercise these days is because of an increase in “screen time” — the amount of time spent watching TV, looking at the computer, or playing video games. Limit recreational screen time to less than 2 hours per day. If your teen is with friends at the mall, they are getting more exercise than if they are texting them from their room.
  • Watch out for portion distortion. Portion sizes are bigger than they used to be, and these extra calories contribute to obesity. Another key factor in weight gain is that more people drink sugary beverages, such as sodas, juice drinks, and sports drinks. So choose smaller portions (or share restaurant portions) and go for water or low-fat milk instead of soda.
  • Eat 5 servings of fruits and veggies a day. Whole fruits, whole vegetables and whole grains (no white bread!) should make up a large part of the diet. Fruits and veggies are packed with vitamins, minerals, and fiber (which means they fill you up). If you fill up on fruits and veggies, you’re less likely to overeat when it comes to high-calorie foods like chips or cookies. By substituting a packed lunch of fruit, sandwiches with brown bread and juice, parents can reduce the excess calories that teenagers are devouring by purchasing their lunch from fast food restaurants.
  • Don’t skip breakfast. Breakfast kick-starts your metabolism, burning calories from the start and giving you energy to do more during the day. People who skip breakfast often feel so hungry that they eat more later on. Research has shown that people who skip breakfast tend to have higher BMIs than people who eat breakfast.

If your teen is overweight, be encouraging. Model healthy behavior and support any efforts they make to increase their physical activity or improve their diet. If your child is overweight but isn’t ready to lose weight, preventing further weight gain is a worthy goal. By influencing your child’s lifestyle you are helping to reduce the chance of teen obesity and help your child stay healthier and develop good habits for the future.

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