We’ve all seen the headlines. childhood obesity is on the rise and is reaching epidemic proportions. One-third of all adolescents have a body weight that exceeds recommended cutoffs, putting them at risk for a host of medical complications including high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma, and sleep apnea. The psychological and social consequences of obesity are equally devastating.
Although there is much debate among experts about how to help teens live a healthy lifestyle, experts do agree on one thing: parents play a critical role. They can influence what their teens eat at home, what foods they pack for lunches/snacks, and how they spend some of their free time. Molly T., a 16-year-old from Wellesley, MA, agrees, “As a teenager, I still rely on my parents to balance my eating habits, mostly for dinner.”
But you can’t push too hard! Rebecca B. a registered dietitian from Greenbelt, MD and the mother of a 15-year-old daughter points out, “If a mom gets really upset when her teen overeats sweets, the teen may start to overeat sweets even more. Sneaking food and overeating food is not uncommon.”
Parents should adopt an approach that doesn’t leave a teen feeling singled out or punished. Instead of just focusing directly on your teen, think about how to modify the entire household.
Weight—A Sensitive Issue
Keep your expectations consistent among family members—especially if your teen is overweight. Amy Hendel, R-PA, IDEA, ACSM, author of Fat Families, Thin Families: How to Save Your Family from the Obesity Trap, shares, “Adopting different standards for different family members may make weight-challenged individuals feel even more isolated than they already do.”
Dr. Jess Haines, PhD, MHSc, RD, an Instructor in the Obesity Prevention Program in the Department of Ambulatory Care and Prevention at Harvard Medical School explains, “Weight and body size are extremely sensitive topics for many teens and research suggests that teens who feel pressure from their parents to be thin or who report that their parents make comments to them about their weight are at increased risk of engaging in disordered eating behaviors.”
Your home must be a place where your teen knows his or her body is accepted. Alison C., a 21-year-old from Stoneham, MA, who was overweight as a child and teenager says, “Any parent who directly tells a child they are overweight are going about this situation in a very wrong way. You just become another bully at school calling your own child fat.” Alison adds, “My parents never made it an issue. Rather than saying you need to lose weight, they signed me up for fun sports and kept me active.”
Think Healthy, Not Thin
The benefits of living a healthy lifestyle are virtually infinite. Adults should encourage teens to find motivators that don’t revolve around weight or appearance but simply promote good health. Michela V., a 16-year-old from Milton, MA, says, “My mom always tells me to get out and walk around every day even if it only is for 15 minutes because going out and accomplishing something makes you feel better about yourself.” Molly T. says, “My parents have always encouraged me to play sports, which helped me develop qualities such as passion and teamwork, while getting in shape! My mother is always there to support me and build my self-confidence.”
Actions and Attitudes
Rebecca B. suggests, “Just keep modeling good eating and a good attitude. It is much more effective to show your teen how to eat, than to tell your teen how to eat. Being a good role model also means promoting moderation and balance. Rebecca says, “Remember, if there is no ‘FUN’ food [in the house], then a teen will often find it elsewhere and overeat it, since it is so restricted at home. Just make sure that there are also plenty of healthy choices. ”
Actions are just half the battle. Your attitude about health is contagious, too. Kim Blum, MS, RD, a registered dietitian and Resources Manager at Action for Healthy Kids says, “If a parent has eating and exercise habits that seem healthy, but approaches them with a negative attitude, they may not be sending a healthy message to their child. Parents should avoid mixed messages like, ‘I guess I’ll just have a salad,’ ‘I am dreading going to the gym today,’ or ‘I really shouldn’t be eating this.’ Instead, parents should inject a positive attitude in their comments about food and exercise like, ‘These tomatoes are so fresh and delicious,’ ‘ Can’t wait to take the dog out and get some fresh air,’ or ‘This ice cream tastes so wonderful—what a great treat.’”
Reducing TV Time: An Effective Weight Loss Strategy
The number of hours a child watches TV is very strongly linked to weight:
- Time spent watching TV is time a teen is not spending doing something active.
- Many teens snack while watching TV—often mindlessly and when they’re not even hungry.
- TV watching also influences the food they eat throughout the day.
- The more TV a teen watches, the more they consume products that are heavily advertised to teens such as fast food, soda, and snack foods.
How to Save Your Family From the Obesity Trap
Author Amy Hendel offers these tips for parents of teens:
- Involve them in taste testing and don’t take it personally.
- Invite them into the kitchen or to shop, if they’re willing.
- Try to create healthier home versions of pizza, lasagna, grilled burgers (turkey), grilled chicken, stir-frys.
- Have fruit, salad, and easy-to-grab options.
- Expose them to flavored waters.
- Don’t condemn foods; do challenge portion size or frequency.
- Add pureed fruit, ground-up veggies whenever possible.
- Always serve a fruit salad and salad with the meal.
- Admit to your own poor role modeling, if applicable. Honesty appeals to teens.
- Get them involved in after-school sports or activities, and be there to cheer them on.