Should You Talk to Teens About Weight Gain? - Promise
Should You Talk to Teens About weight Gain?

Should You Talk to Teens About Weight Gain?

America, we have a problem. One in five American children and adolescents are obese. Obesity is highest among adolescents 12-19 years-old compared to younger children.

How do you know if your teenager is obese?

Your teen’s Primary Care Provider (PCP) measures Body Mass Index (BMI). BMI is weight in kilograms divided by the square of the height in meters – yay for BMI calculators! Teenagers’ BMIs are expressed as percentiles:

  • Underweight: below the 5th
  • Healthy: between the 5th and 85th
  • Overweight: above the 85th
  • Obese: above the 95th

Why do parents need to worry?

Because facts are facts: obese children are more likely to become obese adults, and obesity increases the risk of problems including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Also, we live in a society where weight bias and discrimination, or “ fat shaming,” is rampant.  Fat shaming triggers physical and emotional and physiological changes and is linked to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, eating disorders, as well as increased weight gain.

How can parents speak with their teenagers about their weight in a sensitive manner?

Parenting has its challenges and this is definitely up there. The message must begin with the affirmation that your teenagers are beautifulbecause they most definitely are –  no matter the BMI percentile. Commenting on their strengths and positive qualities can help promote a positive body image. Tread lightly, as calling attention to teenagers weight problems can have negative effects. Especially now – hotline calls to the National Eating Disorders Association increased up 70-80% during the pandemic.

What are some things NOT to say to your teen?  

Weight talk, or negative comments made by a parent about his or her own body weight or to encourage a child to lose weight should be avoided. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), weight talk can actually trigger unhealthy behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, purging, and exercising excessively. Also, parents should not tease about their teens weight or about what and how much they are eating.  One study found that teasing during adolescence was associated with unhealthy weight-control behaviors and binge-eating in adults.

Should your teenager go on a diet?

No! According to a study in the Journal of Adolescent Health, teenagers who engage in extended cycles of yo-yo dieting end up increasing their BMI as adults. Turns out, “dieting” is a risk factor for both obesity and eating disorders. Making changes in food choices is not the same as “dieting.”  No wonder “diet” is a four letter word!

Should teens weigh themselves?

No again! The focus needs to be on health, not on the number on the scale. Research has shown that increased frequency of self-weighing throughout the high school years may damage an adolescent’s self-esteem and psychological health. So, toss the scale!

How can you help adolescents achieve a healthy weight?

  1. Gently (without hovering), help your teen pay attention to their eating behaviors:
  2. Encourage “intuitive eating”: eating when hungry and stopping when full. Eating slowly can help because it takes about 20 minutes for a person’s brain to get the message that they’re full.
  3. Are they emotional-eating? Sometimes people turn to food for comfort — consciously or unconsciously — when dealing with stress.
  4. Encourage 3 meals a day. Skipping meals often leads to overeating later. 
  5. Avoid labeling foods as “bad.” All foods can play a role in healthy eating. The key is to make healthy choices most of the time. If you’re food shopping, ask your teen to join you (this is not a joke) and teach them to choose foods for well-balanced meals and limit sugary drinks. DID YOU KNOW that sugary drinks are the leading source of added sugars in the American diet? NOW YOU KNOW!
  6. Understanding portion size is important. People tend to eat what’s on their plates, so if the portions sizes are large then so are the calories consumed. Serving sizes on the labels tell you the nutrients in the food but they don’t tell you the recommended amount to eat.
  7. Eat. Family. Meals. Children and adolescents who share family meals 3 or more times per week are more likely have a normal weight and have healthier eating behaviors.
  8. Exercise. Physical activity burns calories and helps in achieving a healthy weight. Regardless of weight, it is recommended that adolescents do 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily. Wanna help? Make it fun and do it with them (yes, you!). It’s not all or nothing – even 10 minutes counts!
  9. These changes will benefit the entire family – after all, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander! 

Sometimes adolescents truly need to lose weight, and other times they just need to avoid weight gain because they are still growing. Please discuss this with your child’s PCP.

This blog post first appeared on Inquirer.com

Rima Himelstein, MD

About Rima Himelstein, MD

Rima Himelstein, MD, is an adolescent medicine physician at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del.