Unhealthy weight: some basics
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 and eat less healthy, 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 2007-2008 National Health Survey found that a quarter of Australian children - about 600,000 children – were overweight or obese. The number of overweight and obese children and teenagers appears to be increasing every year.
Getting professional help
If your child has a weight problem, health professionals such as a GP or an accredited practising dietitian will be able to help.
An advantage of seeing a health professional 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, she might be able to ‘grow into’ her weight.
For young people who are already as tall as they’re going to get, overweight needs to be managed by weight loss.
In extreme cases of obesity, a health professional might look at other clinical management options, such as medications or even surgery. If suggested for young people, these options should be managed in a specialist obesity 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.
You can find more information on lifestyle choices for healthy weight in our articles on food for teenagers and physical activity for teenagers.
Here are some practical things to look at in your family lifestyle.
Healthy food and snacks
A cupboard and fridge with nutritious snacks and meals means that you won’t have to be the ‘food police’ all the time. If your child wants to snack, he won’t be able to just grab a chocolate bar. So if he really is hungry he might choose an apple instead. You can also guide him towards healthy choices by trying to get rid of junk food, soft drinks and other ‘sometimes’ foods.
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.
And sitting down to eat a healthy meal together most days encourages your child to eat well.
Screen time limits
The more time your child spends sitting in front of screens (TV, computers, video games, mobile phones and so on), the less time he has for physical activity. Current Australian guidelines say children aged 5-18 years should have no more than two hours of screen time a day.
Daily physical activity
Australian 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.
You can also read some tips for getting children who aren’t interested in sport to do some physical activity.
Encouraging and helping your child to make healthy eating and physical activity choices while he is a teenager will help him avoid unhealthy weight gain. Healthy choices now can get your child in the habit of making healthy choices in the future.
Talking about weight 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 many young people are self-conscious about their weight, and feel bad about themselves because of it. They might even have been 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.
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.
When you find the right moment, be honest and clear about your child’s weight and the need to make healthy changes. The more she understands, the more likely she will be to make and keep 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 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. In a small percentage of people, it can even be a risk factor for eating disorders. So try to talk to your child about eating healthily rather than a advising your child to start a diet.
It’s not always easy to talk with your child about his weight. You might be tempted to avoid discussing it with your child for fear of creating an eating disorder, but the risk of this is very small.
When teenagers feel good about their bodies, they are more likely to have good self-esteem and mental health, as well as a balanced attitude to eating and physical activity. You can read more about the relationship between weight 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, such as socialising, reading, and using a computer and phone
- eat fewer of the foods they need to maintain a healthy weight, such as 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.