BY KATHY MCCOY, PH.D.
On paper, the statistics are shocking enough: the obesity rate for teens has tripled over the past 25 years and with this increase an average weight, type 2 diabetes, once unknown in young people, is now diagnosed in 45% of all new cases involving children or teens. Medical experts fear that high blood pressure and heart disease could become increasingly prevalent among young adults, making this generation of teens the first to have potentially poorer health and shorter life spans than their parents.
On a personal level, seeing a young person you love struggle with being overweight or obesity in the sensitive pre-teen or teen years is painful, frustrating, and alarming—from watching them deal with cruel remarks to seeing them on the sidelines in sports or social events or knowing that they face significant health risks even in young adulthood. Maybe you’ve nagged or dropped hints or taken your child for medical help or sent him or her to weight loss camps—all to no avail.
What can you do to help your teen lose weight and feel better? Put the emphasis on good health, not weight, and make it a goal for the whole family. Teens hate being singled out and criticized. Approaching this from a “YOU need to lose weight!” point of view will guarantee a battle of the wills. Instead, ask for your teen’s help in making an action plan to promote better family eating and exercise habits. Ask him or her to research nutritional information online or to read books and articles with you to come up with some strategies. Engage him or her in meal planning and preparation or in finding a way to wedge family exercise routines (like a walk after dinner) into your schedules.
Have real family meals at least once a day and encourage your teen to eat what the family eats. Frantic family schedules have equaled fast food, pre-prepared food dinners, all of which are processed—and therefore unhealthy! With real, home-cooked meals, you can better control calories, fats, sugars, sodium, additives, preservatives, harmful chemicals, and other nutritional issues. If you’re like most families where both parents work or if you are a single parent, this might seem like a good, but impractical idea. Actually, it’s just a matter of creating new habits: the need to plan in advance, use convenience items like a slow cooker, or make a week’s worth of meals over the weekend and freeze them for weeknight dinners.
Look at and discuss all of your less than ideal eating behaviors. Maybe your teen craves junk food when she’s bored and watching TV. Maybe you want cookies or ice cream when you’ve had an emotional day. You don’t have to have a weight problem to have a story about eating to make certain feelings go away. Pay attention to the difference between physical and emotional hunger. Discuss all this with your family—and come up with ways to comfort or reward yourselves that have nothing to do with food.
Make it convenient for everyone in the family to eat breakfast. Again, advance planning can help: fresh fruit and yogurt in the fridge, whole grain bread and cereals in the pantry, and encouraging all to get up and get going early enough in the morning to grab a bite. Those who don’t eat breakfast tend to overeat during the rest of the day, especially in the evening. Ideally, a balanced eating plan would be a hearty breakfast, reasonable lunch, and light/early dinner, with no major snacking.
Get your family moving! Trying to motivate an overweight teen to go to the gym can be frustrating and non-productive. Schedule exercise into your family routine: a family walk or bike ride after dinner doesn’t have to cut into homework or leisure time too dramatically—and the exercise is good for everyone no matter what their weight.
Become smart, skeptical consumers: There are no weight loss miracles. Help your teen to avoid quick fixes. Any weight lost in a fast (especially one that isn’t medically supervised), with pills, or highly restricted diet regimens tends to come back. The weight didn’t come on overnight and it can’t be lost—for good—overnight either. The goal should be health improvement with a slow, steady weight loss of no more than two pounds a week. The loss can add up to more than 100 pounds in a year—and weight lost slowly as one changes one’s eating and exercise habits is more likely to stay off.
Make a vow—together—to enjoy a full and healthy life now. You don’t have to wait until you or your teen is slim to do this. With good health as your top family priority, you can feel better starting today. Good nutrition, regular exercise, and the feeling that “we’re all in this together” can make a positive difference for everyone in your family! J
Dr. Kathy McCoy is a teen psychology and health expert who has appeared as a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Oprah Winfrey Show. As a writer she is winner of the American Library Associations’ Best Book for Young Adults Award, for The Teenage Body Book, which contains everything teenagers and their parents need to know about nutrition, health, fitness, emotions, and sexuality.