How to Help an Overweight Teen

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on October 11, 2023
6 min read

It's natural to be concerned if your teenager's weight is affecting their mental or physical health. Whether they've been diagnosed with a weight-related health problem, like high blood pressure or sleep apnea, or they're being bullied at school, you want to help.

You know they need to get to a healthy weight, but you also don’t want to make them feel worse. It's a delicate balancing act for parents, but one you can manage safely and effectively.

Here are a few things you and your teen can do to kickstart their healthy lifestyle.

Talk to your teen’s doctor.

Your teen's doctor can calculate their body mass index (BMI), which measures their percentage of body fat based on their weight and height. If your teen's BMI falls within the overweight or obese range, the doctor can recommend how they can reach new weight goals.

That might not even mean losing weight. Your teen might just need to grow into their weight. But if they do need to slim down, experts say it shouldn’t be more than 2 pounds a week.

Talk with your teen, not at them.
Your teen has to be on board and involved with any plan to lose weight. Telling them to lose weight won't work. Talk to them and ask questions like, "How do you feel about your weight?" Then listen to their responses. 

Be your teen's health coach.
Tell your teen the truth: that losing weight is hard. Talk about your struggles with body image and weight if you've had them. And teach them how bad habits, like eating chips and drinking sodas, can pack on the pounds. 

Start with changes at home.
Help your kid succeed by making good changes for everyone in your family, including yourself. Be a good role model and provide healthy foods and snacks, and cook more meals at home. Everyone in the family will benefit when you set health goals together.

Losing excess body weight is important for teens. But it's more critical for you as their parent to focus on their health. Two of the easiest places to start are with what they eat and how they exercise.

Teen Weight Loss Tips: Diet

The best way to change how your teen eats is to stick to the basics.

  1. Skip the sodas and sugary drinks. Replace sugar-laden drinks, like sweet tea, juice, sodas, and sports drinks, with water or low-fat milk. Studies show teens drink these sugary drinks when their parents do, so you have to give them up, too. 
  2. Make vegetable and fruits easy snack choices. The fiber in fresh veggies and fruits are good for your kids, plus it may help them with weight loss. Keep them clean, cut, and in the fridge so they're easy to see and eat. 
  3. Encourage breakfast every day. Teens often skip this morning meal to sleep later, but that could set them up for problems with weight. Be sure your teen eats before school, even if it's an apple and a wedge of cheese in the car.
  4. Don't keep junk food in the house. Although chips are OK every once in a while, keep processed and high-calorie foods off the menu at home. 
  5. Dump the diet foods. Foods packaged as "diet" are usually highly processed and filled with fat and artificial sweeteners. Stick to whole foods and stay away from fad diets.
  6. Eat more meals at home. If you cook and eat at home, you're more likely to eat healthier because you eat fewer carbs, less sugar, and less fat. That means your teen will too.

Teen Weight Loss Tips: Exercise

Health experts recommend that teens get at least 60 minutes of exercise a day. But if your teen isn’t that active now, they can build up to that. Here are a few ways to get them moving:

  • Help them set realistic goals. Start with 10 minutes a day but make them do it. Then slowly add a few minutes every day. When they succeed with small steps, they’ll build self-confidence and stay motivated.
  • Find an activity they love. Encourage your teen to do something they really enjoy, like riding their bike, playing golf, or taking karate. It can be something they do alone or with friends. If it's fun, they're more likely to do it often.
  • Get them involved in school programs. Support the idea of your teen participating in school athletics. They can join the soccer, tennis, or swim team, or the cheer squad or band. All of them involve physical activity.
  • Involve the entire family. Take family walks or bike rides together after dinner. Keep jump ropes and hand weights around the home. Whatever you do, make physical activity a family activity. It’s easier for your teen to move more if everyone does it together.

Major lifestyle changes that affect the whole family can be daunting -- and your teen may push back at first. These tips can help you keep things moving forward.

Don't change everything at once.
Start with changes your teen can complete and do every day. Then encourage them to add more over time. 

Stress a positive body image.
Social media puts enormous pressure on today's teens to look a certain way. Stress instead that they shouldn't compare their body to anybody else's, especially the unrealistic images they see online. Curbing their screen time can help.

Share your struggles.
Let your teen see you struggle and hear your frustrations while you build new habits. Just remind them that feeling good afterward is worth it.

If you're stuck and not having much success helping your teen lose weight, it might be time to get outside help and set goals.

Start with their doctor, a dietitian, nutritionist, or another expert on obesity in teens. A therapist, such as a psychologist or a clinical social worker with a background in teen weight loss, might also provide tips. 

Experts disagree to an extent on the best treatment approach. Some say it’s important to track progress with regular weigh-ins and tallying food and exercise. Others think that close accounting doesn't work. You have to decide what option feels right for your family.

There is no sure weight loss treatment for your teenager. What works for one might not work for another. But there are options to help your teen.

Doctor’s office or hospital. Your child's doctor or the local hospital may be able to tailor a weight loss plan to their specific needs. If neither can, they can refer you to a registered dietitian or weight-management specialist.

Weight loss camps. Studies show these programs can change a child's behavior, help them lose weight, and boost their self-esteem by teaching them how to eat healthier and exercise in their real lives so they can maintain their new lifestyle.

If none of those options help your child manage their weight, then their doctor might consider other treatment options, including:

Medication. The FDA has approved four weight loss medications for children older than 12, including liraglutide (Saxenda), orlistat (Xenical), phentermine-topiramate (Qsymia), and semaglutide (Wegovy). These work best when you combine them with a healthy lifestyle program.

Surgery. Doctors sometimes use weight loss surgery as an option for teens who have severe obesity and obesity-related health problems. If you're considering this option, the American Association of Pediatrics guidelines recommends an expert team evaluate your teen before surgery and that they have at least:

  • A BMI of 40
  • A BMI of 35 or more, plus serious health problems

You and your teenager need to be prepared for all of the changes that come with this surgery.