Helping an Overweight Teen
What should a parent say to their overweight teen? What’s the best way to guide them to better health? It can be a real struggle for parents to know what to say or do when they have a teenager who is overweight. It can feel overwhelming, but experts actually have a lot of valuable advice for parents. Here are some tips:
Your teen is closely observing your lifestyle, eating habits, and attitudes about appearance and weight, even if it doesn’t seem like it. So, the absolute best thing a parent can do for their overweight teen is be a good role model. Do not try to lose or gain weight dramatically or use fad diets, but rather work towards a healthy lifestyle. Demonstrate eating a well-balanced, nutritious, and healthy diet. “Everything in moderation” is a far more positive message to share with your children than messages about food exclusion and restrictive dieting. Be conscious of how you talk about your own body, being careful to not call yourself ‘fat’ or put yourself down. Increase your physical activity and invite your teen to join you. Even if they choose not to participate, they will notice your example! While role modeling may not feel like it provides the immediate result we want, it is the healthiest and easiest way to create healthy attitudes in our teens that will last into their adulthood.
Experts state that children and teenagers should never be placed on a restrictive diet for weight loss, unless a doctor recommends and oversees one for medical reasons. These types of diets can actually interfere with your teen’s growth and development. A better approach is for the entire family to eat healthier. This means that every member of the family should:
- Eat foods from all of the food groups. All foods can be part of healthy eating, when eaten in moderation. Everyone needs grains, fruits, vegetables, proteins, dairy proteins, and healthy fats each day to meet their nutritional needs.
- Drink water. A key factor in weight gain is that most young people drink sugary beverages, such as sodas, juice drinks, and sports drinks. Choose water or low-fat milk instead.
- Limit sweets and high-fat foods. Teens tend to eat too much food that is high in fat, sugar and calories. The main culprits are junk food and fast food restaurants. Avoid having junk food in the house. Instead offer lots of healthy alternatives for snacking, such as nuts, seeds, and fruit.
- Control portions. Portion sizes are bigger than they used to be, and these extra calories contribute to obesity. Reduce portions when serving family meals. When at a restaurant, consider sharing entrees, or saving half of the entrée for lunch the next day.
- Do not skip meals. Skipping meals actually makes your body overeat later in the day. Teens often think that if they skip a meal, then they’re going to lose weight, but the truth is that regular meals help control weight, mood and the ability to concentrate.
- Eat meals as a family. Studies show that families that eat meals together at a table, instead of munching in front of a TV or computer, receive many benefits including weight loss. You can read about all of the benefits of family meals in our previous blog, Reasons You Should Eat Meals with Your Teen.
Overweight or obese teens often have to deal with social discrimination and/or 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, which results in even more weight gain, making them feel even worse about themselves. Overweight teens NEED encouragement.
Parents of an overweight teen can improve their child’s self-esteem by emphasizing his/her strengths and positive qualities rather than just focusing on their weight problem. Compliment your teen’s actions and emphasize that what they do is more important than how they look. The more you accept your teen for who he/she is, the more he/she will be able to accept himself/herself. One of the best ways to show acceptance is through active listening. When your teen is talking to you, you should be spending time trying to understand his/her viewpoint or feelings, not trying to develop arguments or rebuttals to what he/she is saying. You do not have to agree or disagree; just make your teen aware that you understand how he/she feels.
Studies have shown that how parents talk to their teens about their bodies has a tremendous impact on their attitudes and actions. When parents talked to their teens about losing weight or trying to become thin, their children were more likely to use unhealthy methods of weight loss – such as skipping meals or using laxatives – to control their weight. When parents focused their discussions around being healthy – choosing to eat nutritious foods and to exercise in order to stay healthy – and did not specifically discuss weight loss, teens were less likely to use unhealthy weight loss methods or have poor body image.
Involving everyone in the family in good nutrition and increased physical activity teaches everyone healthy habits and does not single out your overweight teen. We discussed above how your family can eat healthier, but also get your entire family active! Plan fun, physically active activities that the whole family can enjoy together.
Unhealthy eating and lack of activity lead to obesity, which causes many health problems and can easily become a lifelong issue. Eighty percent of children that are obese at 13 are obese in adulthood. The key to fighting obesity is to establish life-long habits of eating and enjoying healthy foods in moderate amounts and exercising regularly. If you do have an obese teen, your best course of action is to model healthy choices and to improve your teen’s self-esteem by emphasizing their strengths and positive qualities. And remember, if your child is overweight but isn’t ready to lose weight yet, preventing further weight gain is a worthy goal.