By Raising Children Network, with the Centre for Adolescent Health
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Young people who are overweight or obese have an increased risk of becoming obese adults. Childhood and adult obesity are both associated with severe health risks, including type-2 diabetes, heart disease and other cardiovascular illnesses, and cancer of various kinds.
There’s a lot you can do to help your child manage weight and make healthy lifestyle choices. But if you’re worried that your child might be facing overweight or obesity issues, seeing a health professional can be a good start.

About unhealthy weight, overweight and obesity

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 2011-2012 Australian Health Survey found that a quarter of Australian children – about 600 000 children – were overweight or obese.

Getting professional help for teenage overweight and obesity

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, 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, such as medications or even surgery. If suggested for young people, these options should be managed in 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
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. If he really is hungry he might choose an apple instead.

You can also guide your child towards healthy food 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.

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 (TV, computers, video games, portable devices, 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 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 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.

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.

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 she understands, the more likely she will 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 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 healthily rather than advising your child to start a diet.

It’s not always easy to talk with your child about his weight. You might want to avoid discussing weight with your child for fear of creating an eating disorder. It might help to know that the risk of creating an eating disorder by discussing weight is very small.

When teenagers feel good about their bodies, they’re 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 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, such as socialising, reading and using computers and phones
  • 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.

  • Last updated or reviewed 18-12-2014
  • Acknowledgements This article was written in collaboration with the Centre for Adolescent Health, Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne. The Centre for Adolescent Health also acknowledges Melissa Whitelaw for her contribution to this article.