About unhealthy weight, overweight and obesity in pre-teens and teenagers
A person is overweight if they’re above their healthiest weight and have too much body fat. Obesity is a severe form of overweight.
Pre-teens and teenagers can be at risk of unhealthy weight gain, overweight and obesity. This is because eating and physical activity habits tend to change as children get older. Compared with younger children, pre-teens and teenagers often:
- do less physical activity
- do more activities that involve sitting down, like using screens and socialising
- skip meals
- eat more unhealthy food and more high-fat and high-sugar foods.
As a parent, you know your child best. And you might worry about your child’s weight if you think they’re 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). BMI measures your child’s height and weight. It’s one tool used to assess weight.
Professional help for pre-teen and teenage overweight and obesity
If your child has a problem with overweight, your GP or an accredited practising dietitian can help.
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 pre-teens and teenagers who are overweight achieve a healthy weight by focusing on family behaviour and lifestyle. This will involve helping your child and family make lasting healthy lifestyle choices and get into healthy eating habits for the long term.
A health professional might recommend weight maintenance for a pre-teen or teenage child who hasn’t stopped growing. This means that if the child’s weight stays the same or if it increases only very slowly while the child gets taller, they might be able to ‘grow into’ their weight.
For pre-teens and teenagers who are already as tall as they’re going to get, overweight needs to be managed with gradual and healthy weight loss rather than rapid or large weight loss.
In extreme cases of obesity, a health professional might look at options like medicine or even surgery. Specialist weight management services should supervise these options.
Family strategies to help pre-teens and teenagers with overweight issues
If your GP or another health professional says your child has a problem with overweight, 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.
Here are practical ways to support a healthy lifestyle for your child.
Healthy food and snacks
- Fill your cupboard and fridge with nutritious snacks and meals. This way your child can choose from plenty of healthy options if they’re hungry.
- Guide your child towards healthy food choices by limiting the amount of unhealthy food in your home. This includes food like chips, biscuits, lollies and sugary drinks.
- Aim for a healthy breakfast every day. A healthy breakfast keeps your child feeling fuller for longer, so they’ll be less likely to snack on high-sugar or high-fat foods during the day.
- Eat a healthy family meal together most days. This encourages your child to eat well and gives you the chance to model healthy food choices.
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.
To help your child get the physical activity they need, you could make time for physical activities as a family. For example, you could go for a swim or play backyard cricket together, or if you need to go somewhere, you could walk or ride bikes instead of taking the car.
If your child makes healthy eating and physical activity choices in their teens, it’ll help them avoid unhealthy weight gain. Healthy choices now can get your child into the habit of making healthy choices in the future.
Talking with pre-teens and teenagers about weight and overweight issues
If there’s a problem with your child’s weight, your child needs your help to improve their weight and health.
But it’s not always easy to talk with pre-teens and 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.
This means that 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 active listening is likely to help too. This means really paying attention to what your child is saying and showing that you understand their 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 they’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 pre-teens and 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.