About unhealthy weight, overweight and obesity in teenagers
A person is overweight if that person is above their healthiest weight and has too much 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
- do more activities that involve sitting down, like using screens and socialising
- 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 2017-2018 Australian Health Survey found that a quarter of Australian children – over 1 million children – were overweight or obese.
Professional help for teenage overweight and obesity
An advantage of seeing a GP or dietitian is that your child might see this health professional’s advice as more neutral than yours.
Health professionals can help teenagers who are overweight 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 options like medications or even surgery. Specialist weight management services should supervise these options.
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 getting rid of unhealthy food like chips, biscuits, lollies and sugary drinks 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 during the day.
Eating a healthy family meal together most days also encourages your child to eat well.
Screen time balance
It’s important to make sure that your child has a healthy balance of screen time and other activities, including physical activity.
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. For example, you could try bushwalking or playing backyard cricket together, or if you’re travelling somewhere, you could choose to walk or ride bikes instead of taking the car.
Helping your child to make healthy eating and physical activity choices in his teens 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 with teenagers about weight and overweight issues
If there’s a problem with your child’s weight, your child needs your help to improve her weight and health.
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.
So sensitivity and care are important 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 is very small if you discuss these issues sensitively.
Pick your moment and be ready to listen
Talking about weight might be a difficult conversation. The conversation will probably go better at a time when you’re both relaxed and calm. And actively listening is likely to help too. This means really paying attention to what your child is saying and showing that you understand his point of view.
Be honest, but careful
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. Terms like ‘higher weight’ or ‘above your healthiest weight’ keep the focus on health, not body image.
Avoid talk 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 with 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.