With over 12.5 million of our nation’s children overweight, we need to find creative ways to encourage young people to adopt healthy habits. But it's hard enough to get adults to take responsibility for their weight and health. How do you inspire kids who are also dealing with the tumultuous nature of being a teen to succeed at weight loss?
Overweight teens bear a heavy burden. They must cope with the teasing, social isolation, verbal abuse, and emotional torture that often result from being overweight, as well as their own negative self-images.
Wes Gilbert, son of registered dietitian Anne Fletcher and one of the teens who is profiled in Fletcher’s book Weight Loss Confidential, describes his anxiety and guilt about being overweight.
"I worried about whether clothes made me look fat, what others thought of me, and especially when old friends gave me the look when they noticed how much weight I’d put on," he says. When Wes finally lost weight, he says, "a huge metaphorical burden was lifted."
"Kids who are overweight have a quality of life similar to kids with chronic diseases like cancer," says Kerri Boutelle, PhD, LP, an adolescence and obesity expert at the University of Minnesota.
At her STAR (Service for At-Risk Teens) Clinic, she finds that overweight kids tend to have, or are at risk for, depression, poor self-image, and social isolation. They are also perceived as lazy and less attractive than normal-weight teens.
Teen Weight Loss Woes
For Fletcher, her desire to help her overweight son became a passion for finding solutions to help overweight teens. She interviewed 104 kids to learn what life was like when they were overweight, and what helped them lose the weight and keep it off. The results were published in Weight Loss Confidential: How Teens Lose Weight and Keep it Off and What They Wish Parents Knew.
"Their stories broke my heart. Being overweight affected their popularity, self-esteem, ability to get dates -- everything that is important to a teenager," says Fletcher, who also wrote the Thin for Life series on weight control in adults.
One of the teenage girls in the book described boys groping them as if it were acceptable because they were overweight.
"The pain and suffering of being an overweight teen was what finally led most of these teens to embrace serious weight loss," says Fletcher.
How Parents Can Help Teens With Weight Loss
Teens cannot succeed at weight loss alone. They need supportive parents who create healthy home environments -- and who serve as good role models. When parents succeed at losing weight, their children are more likely to succeed as well. But when a teen has overweight parents, it's often very difficult for that teen to lose weight.
"The hardest part about helping kids lose weight is resistant parents who don’t want to change their own behavior," says Boutelle.
Experts agree that it's a bad idea for parents to nag or say things like, 'Haven’t you had enough?'" to their overweight teens. Instead, let your children know you are there for them and willing to help -- then back off and let them decide when they're ready.
"Parents need to give their kids some space without feeling like they are giving up on them," says Gilbert. "When parents are overbearing, their suggestions backfire, and the teen misses out on the important motivation that comes from making decisions for yourself."
Experts advise talking to them about the pros and cons of being overweight. But use examples they can relate to. For example, talk about the impact their excess weight will have in gym class, not on their health.
"They could care less about health or what is going to happen in 10 years," says Boutelle. "They live in the present."
Teens should also be involved in the process, Fletcher says.
"Ask them to help decide which snacks and foods should be on the grocery list and which ones should we eliminate for the entire family, not just the overweight teen," says Fletcher.
One of the best things you can do for overweight teens is to help them feel good about themselves, experts say. And one way to do this is to help them cultivate their assets and strengths.
"If you can help your child feel good about herself, it will empower her and help her resist the torment," says Fletcher.
And a teen who feels empowered is more likely to tackle a weight issue.
Exercise for Teen Weight Loss
Model behaviors are not limited to the kitchen.
"Active parents usually breed active kids, so if you want your kids to become more physical, lead the way," says Boutelle.
She also suggests turning off the television and limiting computer time. Parents may want to reconsider allowing teens to have TVs in their bedrooms.
"Studies show that kids who spend hours in front of screens are more sedentary, and to make it worse, there is a strong tendency to be snacking mindlessly while sitting," says Boutelle.
Keeping It Off
For virtually all the teens profiled in Weight Loss Confidential, regular exercise has become a way of life.
"Exercise, a healthy diet, and changing behaviors is what is going to make a difference and help kids lose weight and keep it off," says Boutelle.
Fletcher asked teens what helped them resist falling back into bad habits.
"The overwhelming response: These kids did not want to return to the painful days when they were overweight." She adds, "The kids are also happier, more self-confident, enjoying an improved quality of life, and feeling better in general."
Fletcher’s son, Wes, agrees. "I'm simply happier in a lot of ways. I have less anxiety about my appearance, my weight is no longer ever-present in the back of my mind, I feel healthier, have more energy, and have learned to enjoy many new kinds of foods," he says.
Teen Weight Loss Wisdom
Boutelle says that successful behaviors for teenage weight loss include:
- Eating more fruits and vegetables
- Eating more whole grains
- Eating more low-fat dairy and lean meats
- Eating less fat
- Drinking less soda
- Exercising regularly
- Getting on the scale weekly
For their part, parents can stock the house with healthy foods -- including some treats. They can also enjoy nutritious foods and engage in regular physical activity together with their teens. But while serving as good role models, parents should still allow teens to make their own choices. To succeed, teens need to take responsibility for what they eat and how often they exercise.
Parents may need some additional guidance to help overweight teens get to the stage where they are ready to lose weight. Health care professionals can provide suggestions that teens will listen to, as well as support for both parents and teens.