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When your teen is overweight

Is your teenage kid overweight? If so, you're not alone (though sometimes it probably feels as though you are). Federal statistics show that nearly a third of American children and teens are overweight or obese.

I've been learning a lot about how to help overweight kids get to a healthy weight as I researched this week's "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" column. While much of the advice out there sounds reasonable, some of it seems to come from people who have never raised a teen. I'm particularly put off by the widely held and overly simple notion that parents' modeling healthful behaviors leads to children following their lead. I think that may work with younger kids, and I know it can pay off later in life (my mother's daily 3-mile-walk certainly inspired my current commitment to daily exercise). But not many teens I know are outwardly eager to mimic their parents' behavior. Aren't the teen years when they're supposed to start separating themselves from us?

But, as I said, some of the tips seem as though they might really work. Here are a few I that seemed most likely to help:

  • Get a physician involved in evaluating your teen's weight. He or she can take an objective view as to whether your child is in fact overweight and dispassionately discuss a game plan for getting on track.

  • Start early. It's much easier to instill healthful habits in little kids than to get teens to adopt new ways all of a sudden. Still, be prepared for your child to abandon some of those healthful habits once you're not the only one providing his meals and overseeing his daily activities.

  • Consider "diet" a four-letter word. Instead of focusing on deprivation or even directly on weight loss, talk in terms of developing healthful eating and exercise habits that will serve your teen well now and throughout his or her life.

  • Provide mostly healthful foods, but allow for occasional treats.

  • Help your teen learn to figure out when he or she is really hungry or just wanting to eat for reasons having nothing to do with fueling the body.

  • Let your teen help plan meals and shop for food.

  • Make sure your kid gets plenty of sleep -- 8 to 9 hours a night -- and regularly eats breakfast.

  • Take a hard look at how much time your teen spends in front of screens -- TV, computer and video -- and work with him or her to come up with a reasonable limit. Most experts advise no more than 2 hours' screen time per day.

  • Expand your definition of physical activity, of which kids should get 60 minutes' worth a day. For kids who don't enjoy -- or have time for -- organized sports, that can mean dancing, hula-hooping or kicking a ball around the yard. And remember that six 10-minute sessions throughout the day work just as well as one 60-minute block of activity.

  • Don't single out the overweight kid. Involve the entire family in new, healthful eating routines and physical activities.

What have you done to try to help your teenager manage his or her weight? How are things going? Share your tales and tips in the comments section, please!

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  November 17, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness , Obesity  
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Instead of just allowing a teen to assist in meal planning and food shopping, how about getting him or her into the kitchen? Teens are old enough to learn to cook, so why not get them involved in the entire food preparation process? Besides, knowing how to cook is a valuable life skill regardless of body weight.

Posted by: northgs | November 17, 2009 10:10 AM | Report abuse

I was an overweight child but lost the weight when I was 13 or 14. What worked for me was Weight Watchers. (I'd failed at trendy diets before that.) I learned about nutrition and calories, and how to choose lower calorie foods. It sounds simplistic, but kids might not have that basic information. I agree with the other suggestions, but let's be more direct in talking about what makes food a healthier or less healthy choice -- talk about fats, excess sugars, and calories.

Posted by: drl97 | November 17, 2009 10:25 AM | Report abuse

Thankfully our pediatrician raised this issue with us since birth (2000 to 2002) so I tuned in. Dessert only 2 times a week! We are shocked at how hard it is to stick to that rule. Reality is hard to digest in our over-plentiful environment full of treats available at every corner, grocery store, restaurant, birthday party, etc. Something as simple as a birthday party event has boomed since I was a child. I'm thankful for the number of parties we attend and I am happy to see goody bags, without any candy, distributed at the end of a party. I think if our society can move in this direction for all events big or small, we'll come over this hurdle just fine.

Posted by: bkshane | November 17, 2009 2:57 PM | Report abuse

I too was an overweight teen... a coordinated guidance effort between parents and pediatrician may have worked wonders. And I don't think diet is a bad word. I too finally lost my excess weight via Weight Watchers. As with adults, maintaining a healthy weight for children will mean WORK, working on your diet, and on your exercise program too, both on a daily basis.

Sugar coating weight loss by avoiding words like "diet" is not helpful. Teenagers recognize the need to eat the right foods, just as adults do. Be honest, upfront and direct. A healthy weight is work but so worth it..

Posted by: sarahbonnie1 | November 17, 2009 3:10 PM | Report abuse

I was an overweight teen, too. Let me make my suggestion: Don't rag on the kid about it. If the kid is honestly overweight, he/she will be well aware of the fact - you don't need to point it out by bringing up food, exercise, and "good habits" all the time. The other kids at school and in the neighborhood will all be reminding him/her of his/her weight every day. Let home be the one place there's peace.

Serve good healthy food in reasonable portions. Try to keep the real junk out of the pantry. Do the little things you can, and otherwise keep quiet. Change has to come from within.

And please, PLEASE, don't try to be coyly encouraging. Hearing, "But you have such a pretty face!" or "That's a little small on you, but you can work down to it!" or "Wouldn't this be a nice night for a walk!" really doesn't help.

The teenager knows already that he/she's overweight. The pre-teens and the little ones know, too. It often feels like everyone in the whole world is going out of their way to tell them every day.

Let home be a haven of peace.

Posted by: PharPhlungPhillyPhan | November 17, 2009 3:20 PM | Report abuse

Another suggestion; have plenty of fresh fruits and vegatables around the house, but nothing that could remotely be considered junk food.

Posted by: Ombudsman1 | November 17, 2009 6:30 PM | Report abuse

You can find great workouts for teens and ways to stay active on Find fun ways to stay in shape. The site has hundreds of activities and exercises listed with step-by-step instruction, all of which are posted for free.

Posted by: gstallkamp | November 17, 2009 6:56 PM | Report abuse

I was an overweight teen. My Mom enlisted the Pediatrician who was very helpful in guiding me to a way of eating. I learned to count calories, knew which ice cream was best for a treat and made at least grudging attempts at exercise. Those habits have served me well throughout my life.

The important thing for me was that I wanted to lose weight.

If your child doesn't want to lose weight, and I think you need to consider that a 45 y/o mother's idea of overweight and a teen's idea may not be the same, then lay off.

Teens may not want their parents in their lives but parents need to be there. To let weight drive a wedge between you and your teen is a shame.

Posted by: RedBird27 | November 17, 2009 7:33 PM | Report abuse

I was overweight since 1st grade. As a teen I was acutely aware of my weight, so I don't think parents need to harp on the fact.

If your child can't seem to control him/herself when it comes to sugars, fast food, chips, sodas, don't blame the child (or the parents). It's likely biochemical in nature, and no amount of willpower or discipline will moderate or eliminate the behavior for the long term.

For kids (and adults) like this, there's a *reason* why people are drawn to these foods and find it hard to moderate or stop their intake. The root of it is physiological.

Do your kids a favor and check out the work of Kathleen DesMaisons, PhD; she has pioneered the field of addictive nutrition. Her 7-step plan has saved my sanity and, I truly believe, my life.

Posted by: domystic8 | November 17, 2009 7:35 PM | Report abuse

"Don't single out the overweight kid. Involve the entire family in new, healthful eating routines and physical activities."

Seconded so hard. Believe me, your overweight teen is acutely (often painfully) aware of his or her appearance. If you can try to emphasize healthy lifestyle choices over physical appearance, you'll be doing them a huge favor- and pulling the focus away from appearance and more towards behaviors and actions.

And restricting or eliminating food at the computer and TV can be a big help. I know those two places are where I do a lot of my mindless eating.

Posted by: Bawlmer51 | November 19, 2009 11:37 AM | Report abuse

Liquid candy (carbonated soda) is the single biggest causative culprit for overweight teens today.

I see homes where kids don't have access to sugary, overprocessed junk and they are thin, TV notwithstanding.

I've seen homes with very limited TV and junk food and the kids and parents are fat.

What goes into the pie-hole matters more than exercise.

Posted by: foodandart | November 20, 2009 12:16 PM | Report abuse

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