Did you know that adolescent obesity has been linked to depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, poor self-esteem, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, aggressive and destructive behavior, internet addiction, binging and purging, and other severe emotional outcomes (Reinehr 2018)? Emotional issues are often attributed to bullying and weight stigma.
If you are the parent of an obese teen, it’s challenging to know what to do. However, you can gently encourage your teen to gain the confidence, desire and ability to establish lasting healthy habits—and thus avert the damage of obesity. Consider coaching teens to better health with these suggestions from Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD, a pediatrician, registered dietitian, award-winning author and obesity medicine specialist in Carlsbad, California.
Focus on Behavior, Not Weight
Zeroing in on healthy habits takes the emphasis off weight loss. Encourage teens to
- eat “real foods” like vegetables, fruits and whole grains rather than packaged or highly processed foods;
- incorporate enjoyable activity into each day; get adequate sleep;
- “unplug” from screens and devices for part of the day; and
- cope with stress more effectively.
The goal is to help your teen learn about healthy food options and ways to improve habits pertaining to sleep, stress management and physical activity, all of which affect weight. Focusing on these habits helps teens set goals based on things they can control. Moreover, teens who do not feel confined to a strict diet are less likely to yo-yo between losing and gaining weight, which often occurs when people start and stop a new diet or restrictive nutrition plan.
Focusing on dieting increases the risk of disordered eating and low self-esteem (Golden et al. 2016).
Empower Teens to Make Better Choices
Giving teens autonomy and the tools to make healthy choices is powerful. Teach SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound) goal-setting and create habit-based goals (e.g., “I will eat a fruit or vegetable with each meal or snack”) rather than weight loss goals. These tactics set them up for the quick wins that will keep them motivated.
Once teens develop SMART goals, encourage them to learn new skills like reading nutrition labels, understanding serving sizes, noting hunger and fullness cues, and helping with meal planning. These skills can keep them involved, empowered and likely to achieve their goals.
Model Healthy Behaviors
Research has found that parents who urge a child to diet may do more harm than good: “Experiencing parent encouragement to diet as an adolescent was significantly associated with a higher risk of overweight or obesity, dieting, binge eating, engaging in unhealthy weight-control behaviors, and lower body satisfaction 15 years later” (Berge et al. 2018). Instead, you can help by modeling healthy habits and a healthy relationship with food for the whole family.
Berge, J.M., et al. 2018. Intergenerational transmission of parent encouragement to diet from adolescence into adulthood. Pediatrics, 141 (4), e20172955.
Brewis, A.A., & Bruening, M. 2018. Weight shame, social connection, and depressive symptoms in late adolescence. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 15 (5), e891.
Golden, N.H., et al. 2016. Preventing obesity and eating disorders in adolescents. Pediatrics, 138 (3), e20161649.
Pont, S.J., et al. 2017. Stigma experienced by children and adolescents with obesity. Pediatrics, 140 (6), e20173034.
Reinehr, T. 2018. Long-term effects of adolescent obesity: Time to act. Nature Reviews Endocrinology, 14 (3), 183–88.