If you find that you or your teenage child is struggling with weight issues, you’re not alone. Roughly 20 percent of teens between the age of 12 and 19 years old are obese.(1,2) Being overweight in childhood can be difficult. It could result in bullying and teasing by peers. It can have a negative effect on a child’s self-esteem. And it could lead to serious health consequences later in life.(3,4)
Losing weight as a teenager is not the same thing as doing so as an adult. The body is still growing. Adolescence comes with its own set of extra emotional and physical challenges.
A weight loss plan for teenagers needs to have lasting positive effects and should not be about “dieting”. You don’t want something that will promote unhealthy eating in favor of a lower weight. It’s important to put together a sound strategy.
So, what are good diets for teens?
Here are some things to keep in mind when considering how to lose weight as a teen:
The Right Mentality
Sometimes, teens may feel the need to lose weight, even though they don’t need to. This can promote unhealthy behavior, which could become a full-on eating disorder. For example, some teens experience weight gain in conjunction with a growth spurt.
This is normal. And even though a teen is getting heavier, they can still be at a healthy weight. If you have questions, or you’re unsure if weight gain is normal, have a talk with your doctor. They can tell you whether a teen weight loss regimen is necessary.(5)
Have Healthy Discussions
Teenage weight loss is too often accelerated by poor body image, and the unrealistic standards that we see every day. So, if your teen does truly need to drop pounds, you’ll want to frame the weight loss discussion in a healthy way. This means explaining that different weights are healthy for different body types.
Also, don’t use terms like “fat” or “thin.” Instead, promote physical activity and dietary choices that will aid weight loss. Not doing so can have negative effects on a teen’s weight and self-esteem.(6) Teenage weight loss is a delicate subject, so approach it with care.
Food As Fuel
Sometimes, teens may not understand the mechanisms behind weight gain and loss. Many adults don’t understand them, either.
Changing up certain foods in diets for teen’s may be helpful. What isn’t helpful is nixing the foods without explaining why. Discuss the idea that food is fuel. You need a certain amount of calories to function, as well as grow. Some foods don’t offer enough nutritional fuel to justify their high calorie content. Even more helpful is nixing these foods for yourself, too. There is strength in solidarity.
How many calories should your teen be eating? Caloric needs vary based on many factors, including gender, genetics, age, and height. If you’re unsure, ask your teen’s doctor.(7)
Fad Diets and Bad Habits
It’s easy for teens to fall prey to fad weight loss diets, which are not long-term solutions to teenage weight loss. As they try to drop pounds, they may begin eliminating all fats or carbs from their diet – or skip meals. Not only will this derail their weight loss plan, this could be dangerous. Everyone, for example, needs a certain amount of fat in their diet. How much? Usually around 30 percent of the total calories consumed.(8)
For teenage weight loss in general, you want to take a bit-by-bit approach with food habits. Phase out unhealthy foods at a slow rate, and replace them with healthy alternatives. Encourage your teen to replace fries and chips with healthier snacks. Veggie chips can be found at most regular supermarkets, and are a tasty alternative to greasy potato chips. Baby carrots, grapes, cherry tomatoes, and yogurt are all portable, healthier alternatives.(9)
Proper Portion Control
Control of meal portions is a major issue, especially here in the U.S. But parents can help with this issue.
To begin with, if teens see parents eating smaller portions, and enjoying more balanced meals, a healthier lifelong eating pattern may result.(10)
Parents can also arm themselves with knowledge of true portion size. There is a wealth of info out there including from The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
To give you some idea of portions: a portion isn’t what you are often served in a restaurant. Or even what you receive as a pre-packaged snack food. In fact, one large pre-wrapped cookie may be two or three servings on the nutritional label!
Some examples of good portions include: a serving of meat should be the size of your palm; and a serving of rice or pasta should only be the size of your fist. That’s it. The great thing is that your stomach adapts to the portions that it is consistently fed.
Changing portion sizes can make a large impact on weight loss plans for teenagers.
Don’t Skip Breakfast
Breakfast is the perfect way to start each day in a healthy way. Yet many people skip breakfast because they’re “too busy”, “not hungry” or wanting to “lose weight”.
The thing is, breakfast is called “the most important meal of the day” for a very real reason. It kick starts your metabolism for the day. When you are trying to lose weight, one of the most essential things you can do is to rev up your metabolism. And, who wouldn’t want to do that at the top of the day?
Skipping breakfast leaves teens (and adults!) hungrier at their next meal – and much more likely to consume greater amounts of food at that meal. It can also make your body believe that you are actually starving which sets off a far worse series of events. The body will begin to store calories and start craving bad, high calorie foods in order to “save” you from starvation.
Physical activity goes hand-in-hand with healthy eating for teenage weight loss. And, physical activity is not only important for physical health, but also mental health. Try to get your teen to think that they are exercising for fitness, not weight loss. This will help create a more positive association with the activity.
What type of exercise is best for weight loss? Aerobic training, resistance training, or a combination of the two can be beneficial. One study showed all led to lower body fat and waist circumference. But the combined approach of aerobic and resistance training led to the best results.(11) How much exercise is enough? Generally, teens should get roughly 60 minutes of physical activity three days a week.(12)
This doesn’t mean your teen has to do all this in one day. Get creative with the exercise routine. Many teens haven’t yet found their confidence in physical activity. So the best thing they can do is find something that they will find enjoyment in. Even adults know that if an exercise doesn’t interest you, there is no way you will stick to it!
If you’ve got errands nearby, walk together, don’t drive. Walk as a family around your neighborhood after dinner. Teens can grab friends and walk (or bike) around the neighborhood. Or embark on a fun dance class. All this can provide enough physical activity to promote some weight loss.
The Hidden Evils
Many kids and teens are drawn to juices and sodas as their drink of choice. They may find water boring and are looking for something with flavor. However, juice and flavored sodas are one of the worst hidden culprits when it comes to weight gain.
Sodas (like coca cola, fanta and friends) are exceptionally high in sugar, and can contribute massive calories to what may be a fairly okay diet. This amount of sugar has also been proven to be very addictive.
Juice is almost worse because many people believe it to be “healthy” and so choose it over soda. Fruit is full of natural sugars called fructose. But natural doesn’t always equate to healthy. One piece of fruit as a snack is great and you will also get healthy fiber from the flesh and skin. But a bottle of fruit juice is a concentration of many, many pieces of fruit and is basically just liquid sugar without any of that essential fiber.
What’s the best thing for teens to drink for successful, healthy teenage weight loss? Naturally water is always the best choice. But they can make a healthy soda by adding a slice of fruit (or a few berries) to a bottle of sparkling water. Or, herbal teas come in a range of tasty flavors and can be chilled and carried around in a water bottle.
Nix Snacking After Dinner (for all the family)
When you lie down to sleep each night you can no longer burn any excess calories (like ice cream and candy) that you may have just eaten. If you’ve snacked to the point of now being over-full, lying down can also lead to reflux.
When you’ve eaten a nutritious, filling dinner your body shouldn’t be hungry again before bed. Snacking before bed is purely a habit – you’ve just gotten used to having a dessert or snack each night.
A great diversion is to switch to something healthy and calorie-free like peppermint tea after dinner. This will help to curve any cravings as well as provide your tastebuds with a dessert-like flavor hit!
How to lose weight for teens: A recap
Many teens seek out weight loss for all the wrong reasons. But, there are ways to help your teen understand that healthy teenage weight loss is the way to go. Take the time to reframe the weight loss conversation. Set a strong example with your own eating habits. Explain why fad diets and skipping meals will derail their weight loss plans. And, if you want to help keep your teen motivated, exercise with them, as a family!
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