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weight management and teens

Many children seem to be lacking important information and guidance regarding exercise and nutrition. The result is that many children, especially teens, don't know how to manage their weight and are becoming either overweight or underweight. There is no universally accepted definition for overweight, however, a cut off point of either the 85th or 95th percentile of body mass index is generally recommended for children, and the 85th percentile for teens.

What is the information for this topic? 
After infancy, the teen years mark the second fastest growth stage in life. It can be hard for a teen to manage his or her weight during this time. Teens need enough energy in the form of kilojoules to grow and stay active. But, if they take in too many kilojoules and don't burn them off, the energy is stored in the body as fat. Over time, this leads to weight gain. On the other hand, if teens don't take in enough kilojoules and nutrients, their bodies don't have the energy to grow or function properly.


Overweight teens who become overweight adults are at greater risk for developing a chronic disease, such as arthritis, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure, at a younger age. Being overweight also can lead to low self-esteem. Many overweight teens isolate themselves from their peers and do not take part in outside activities. This can lead to even more weight gain.

There are many reasons why a teen might become too heavy. They include:
  • an inactive lifestyle. In fact, a lack of physical activity may play a greater role in becoming overweight than eating high-kilojoule foods. The rapid rise in child and teen obesity has mirrored the explosion of sedentary leisure activities, such as watching television, sitting at the computer, or playing video games.
  • poor eating habits. This includes skipping meals and frequent snacking. Much of what these teens eat are high in dietary fat, such as pre-packaged and fast foods.
  • genetics. If one or both parents is overweight, the chance that a child will also grow up to be overweight goes up by 25 to 30%.
  • ethnic background. Overweight occurs at higher rates among Hispanic, African-American, and American Indian children, especially girls.
  • health problems, including endocrine disorders.
  • other factors, such as emotions, family problems, and self-image.
  • environmental factors, such as what the family buys and cooks and how much is served
Here are some ways that families can help overweight teens develop healthy habits:
  • Stay positive. Do not act like "food police" by watching, nagging, or criticising what the teen eats. This is not helpful, and likely to backfire.
  • Be supportive and encouraging of any behaviours aimed at healthy lifestyle change.
  • Discourage drastic, unhealthy measures, such as strict dieting or drugs. Dieting is dangerous to a growing body, to self-esteem, and emotional growth. It can also set the stage for eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia.
  • be a good role model, eat well and be active as a family
Families can teach a child how to eat a healthy diet and get enough exercise. For instance, parents should:
  • encourage teens to reduce kilojoules a little at a time. Limit their access to high-fat, high-kilojoule snack and convenience foods, including fast foods and soft drinks. Instead, provide healthier, tasty alternatives. Involve the teen in shopping and food preparation.
  • not use food as a punishment or a reward
  • focus on changing food preferences and eating behaviours for the long term, not just for a few months
  • make permanent changes to shopping and cooking practices.
  • encourage teens to increase their exercise. Research shows that increased physical activity rather than competitive sports may be more effective in promoting weight loss. The weight loss itself then becomes the motivator. If the teen enjoys the activity, he or she will be more likely to stick to it. In fact, it may be an activity he or she does for the rest of his or her life.
  • teach children about good nutrition, including the Australian Guide To Healthy Eating. Studies have shown that nutrition education has some effect in improving adolescent health behaviour. Encourage self-study from reliable resources and school courses in health and nutrition.
If a teen chooses to participate in a structured weight management program, it should:
  • focus on healthy eating
  • be self-monitoring
  • provide social support
  • encourage enjoyable physical activity
  • encourage behaviour change
  • be run by qualified health professionals, including dieticians
  • help the whole family, not just the teen, focus on making healthy changes to their eating and activity habits that can be maintained throughout life


Being underweight is also linked to health risks, especially if it is caused by malnutrition. A diet with too few kilojoules may not supply the energy or nutrients needed for growth and development. Too little food energy leads to fatigue, irritability, and lack of concentration. Being underweight can decrease immune response to infection and disease. It also can interfere with normal menstrual cycles, increasing the risk for osteoporosis in later life. Dieting can lead to more serious health problems, like anorexia or bulimia. These conditions are life-threatening and require professional help to treat.

Many of the tips listed above to help overweight teens also can be applied to underweight teens. Here are a few more that are geared to help underweight teens:
  • Follow the Australian Guide To Healthy Eating healthy eating guidelines and eat at the higher end of the serving ranges.
  • Choose nutritious foods with concentrated kilojoules, such as smoothie drinks, milkshakes, trail mixes, peanut butter, and cheese and crackers.
  • Eat 3 meals plus 3 to 4 snacks each day. Have a high kilojoule snack before bed.
In addition, a strength-training routine is also helpful if the goal is to build some lean body mass along with adding body fat.

Teens will be most successful in managing their weight if they set realistic goals including:
  • eating a healthy diet that supports optimal growth while maintaining weight
  • participating in enjoyable physical activity on a regular basis
Families also need to work with teens and show them how to make healthy eating and exercise a part of their daily routine for the rest of their lives.

Author: Kelly Streit, MS, RD, LD
Reviewer: eknowhow Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr John Hearne
Last Updated: 22/02/2005
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

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