June 12, 2000 -- Issues of weight and dieting are common causes for concern in households with teenage children. Many parents worry because teens are dieting all the time or even showing signs of eating disorders. Other parents may needlessly worry because their children aren't stick-thin.
But some parents may indeed have reason to be concerned. Federal studies have documented an increase in the percentage of children who are significantly overweight, a factor that could adversely affect their health. Dietitians say the causes are two-fold: eating too many calories and moving around too little.
If parents are concerned, the first step is to have a pediatrician or family physician assess the child's weight based on a number of factors -- including body type and body mass index -- and compare it with charts that indicate national height and weight averages for various age groups. If a child is seriously overweight, doctors also may administer a blood sugar test to find out if the child is diabetic or pre-diabetic -- because excessive weight is a risk factor for diabetes.
And if a child is in fact seriously overweight, then what? This is the hard part. Parents can set a good example by eating healthy low-fat meals and exercising every day, but they can't make their children do the same. As any parent knows, the child has to make that choice herself. One source of help might be an Internet chat room or a peer-support group where kids can talk to other kids about their feelings.
Nutritionists say banning a food only makes it more desirable, so parents are advised to encourage moderation instead. And to be fair, try not to have a food in the house -- like ice cream -- that everyone else in the family can eat whenever they like.
Most of all, psychologists say, parents need to be patient. Teaching healthy -- and lifelong -- habits takes time.
Jane Meredith Adams has written for numerous national publications including The Boston Globe.