About unhealthy weight, overweight and obesity in teenagers

A person is ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’ if that person has an excessive amount of body fat. Obesity is a more severe form of overweight.

Teenagers can be at risk of unhealthy weight gain, overweight and obesity. This is because teenagers tend to:

  • do less physical activity
  • have more screen time
  • eat less healthy food and more high-fat and high-sugar foods.

As a parent, you know your child best. It’s normal to worry about your child’s weight if you think she’s making unhealthy food choices and not getting enough physical activity each day.

Your GP will be able to say for sure whether your child is an unhealthy weight. The GP might discuss your child’s body mass index (BMI), which measures your child’s height and weight.

If you’re worried about your child’s weight, you’re not alone. The 2011-2012 Asian Health Survey found that a quarter of Asian children – about 600 000 children – were overweight or obese.

Getting professional help for teenage overweight and obesity

If your child has a weight problem, your GP or an accredited practising dietitian can help.

An advantage of seeing a health professional like a GP or dietitian is that your child might see the professional’s advice as more ‘neutral’ than yours.

Health professionals can help many overweight teenagers achieve healthy weight by focusing on behaviour and lifestyle. This is likely to involve helping your child and family establish long-term healthy lifestyle choices, and avoid disordered eating.

A health professional might recommend a weight maintenance program for a young person who still has some ‘height growing’ to do. This means that if the child’s weight stays the same while the child gets taller, he might be able to ‘grow into’ his weight.

For young people who are already as tall as they’re going to get, overweight needs to be managed with gradual and healthy weight loss.

In extreme cases of obesity, a health professional might look at other clinical management options, like medications or even surgery. If these options are suggested for young people, they should be managed by a specialist weight management service.

Family strategies to help teenagers with overweight issues

If your GP or another health professional says your child has a weight problem, there’s a lot you can do as a family to help your child get back to a healthy weight.

A good place to start is with your family lifestyle. When your whole family eats well and gets enough daily physical activity, you set a good example for your child. This is also a great way of supporting and encouraging her.

Here are some practical things to look at in your family lifestyle.

Healthy food and snacks
If you fill your cupboard and fridge with nutritious snacks and meals, your child can choose from lots of healthy options if he’s hungry.

You can also guide your child towards healthy food choices by trying to get rid of junk food, soft drinks and other ‘sometimes’ foods from your home. This means your child won’t be able to just grab a chocolate bar, and you won’t have to be the ‘food police’ all the time.

A healthy breakfast every day is especially important. A healthy breakfast keeps your child feeling fuller for longer, so she’ll be less likely to snack on sugary or fatty foods. This will help her stay at a healthy weight.

Sitting down to eat a healthy meal together most days also encourages your child to eat well.

Screen time limits
The more time your child spends sitting in front of screens like TVs, computers, video games, tablets and mobile phones, the less time he has for physical activity. The latest guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) say that children aged six years and older should have consistent limits on  screen time and the types of media they use.

Daily physical activity
Asian guidelines recommend children aged 5-18 years have at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day. If you can make time for physical activities as a family, it’s a great way to get your child moving.

Encouraging and helping your child to make healthy eating and physical activity choices while she’s a teenager will help her avoid unhealthy weight gain. Healthy choices now can get your child in the habit of making healthy choices in the future.

Talking with teenagers about weight and overweight issues

If there’s a problem with your child’s weight, your child needs your help to get his weight – and future health – back on track. But it’s not always easy to talk with teenagers about weight.

Many young people are self-conscious about their weight, and feel bad about themselves because of it. They might even get teased or bullied because of their weight. There are also lots of negative media messages about childhood obesity that can make overweight young people feel even worse about themselves and their bodies.

So sensitivity and care is a good idea when talking about weight issues with your child.

If you’re worried that discussing weight with your child will create an eating disorder, it might help to know that the risk of creating an eating disorder by discussing weight is very small.

Communication strategies
It might be easier to bring up the subject of your child’s weight if you use some strategies for positive communication. Our articles on active listening and tricky conversations have more information.

If you need to talk about your child’s weight, the conversation will probably go better at a time when you’re both relaxed and calm.

Helpful language
When you find the right moment, be honest and clear about your child’s weight and the need to make healthy changes. The more your child understands, the more likely she’ll be to make and stick to healthy changes.

For example, ‘I’ve noticed that you haven’t been getting a lot of exercise lately. I think you might be getting to a weight that’s not healthy for you. But I’m no expert! How would you feel about talking to the GP?’

Choose your language carefully. Most people find that terms like ‘obese’ are negative, hurtful and unhelpful. It’s more positive to use terms like ‘overweight’ or ‘above your healthiest weight’. These terms keep the focus on health, not body image.

Avoid talking about ‘dieting’
Restricted eating and kilojoule counting isn’t a strategy for developing long-term healthy eating habits. For some teenagers, dieting can even be a risk factor for eating disorders. So try to talk to your child about eating in a healthy way rather than about starting a diet.

When teenagers feel good about their bodies, they’re more likely to have good self-esteem and mental health, as well as balanced attitudes to eating and physical activity. You can read more about the relationship between health and body image.

Risk factors for unhealthy weight gain

As children become teenagers, changes to their lifestyle can put them at risk of unhealthy weight gain. For example, young people might:

  • do less physical activity, including less intense physical activity
  • do more activities that involve sitting down, like socialising, reading and using computers and phones
  • eat fewer of the foods they need to maintain a healthy weight, like fruit, vegetables and low-fat dairy products
  • eat more high-energy food, takeaway food and snacks
  • eat away from home more and make food decisions that you can’t control.

If you think your child or your family might have any of these risk factors, you could look at making changes in those areas and consider discussing the issue with your GP.

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