The teenage years are such an important time of growth and development. It is a time of independence and figuring out who you really are. With all of these changes, it is normal for a teenager’s weight to also change.
If a teenager is gaining weight too fast, they should focus on establishing healthy eating and exercise habits, rather than focusing on losing weight. Purposeful attempts at weight loss through restriction can be dangerous for teenagers because it can result in missing out on important nutrients needed for growth and development. Teenagers that diet to lose weight also frequently develop disordered eating behaviors.
Read on for more information about what to do if a teenager is gaining weight too fast and how parents can be involved in helping their teen be the healthiest that they can!
How to Track Growth and Weight in Teens
There has to be a way of tracking growth and weight over time as teenagers continue to develop. What is considered a “healthy” weight changes over time. Healthcare professionals use growth charts for children and teenagers while they are still in this period of growth.
Understanding growth charts is a great way to be involved in the health and wellbeing of your teenager. Below are the steps for using and interpreting growth charts for your teenager.
- Calculate Body Mass Index (BMI). BMI is calculated using height and weight and can be done by hand or using this website created by the Center for Disease Control (CDC).
- There are different growth charts for boys and for girls since gender does affect how teenagers grow and develop. Those charts are shown below. Choose the chart that applies to your teenager.
- Plot BMI on the chart as it corresponds to the age of your teenager.
- Interpret your point! You will see the percentiles to the right of the growth chart. The growth charts below are color-coded to make it easier to read. The red area (>95%) is classified as obese, yellow (85-95%) is classified as overweight, green (5-85%) is normal weight, and blue (<5%) is underweight.
- Remember that this does not necessarily indicate a teenager’s health status. Growth charts should be used to look at weight trends over time. Health professionals should also take into account clinical lab values, eating and exercise habits, mental health status, and other relevant factors when assessing health status.
If you have looked at growth charts or have talked to your teenager’s doctor and determined that they are gaining weight too fast, then what do you do?
The best thing for teenagers to do is establish healthy eating and exercise patterns, get enough sleep, and practice stress management. It is inappropriate for teenagers to be put on a “diet,” regardless of what their weight is. If your doctor or dietitian recommends going on a restrictive diet, I recommend finding another healthcare provider!
We live in a society obsessed with dieting, but it is not a good course of action for teenagers. Since teens are in such an important phase of growth and development, restricting calories or food groups can result in nutrient deficiencies, impaired growth, and disordered eating.
Weight Tips for Teens
Ok, we have talked about the best course of action for teenagers wanting to get to a healthy weight- establishing healthy eating and exercise patterns, getting enough sleep, and controlling stress. But if you need more tips for how to do that, here ya go!
- Focus on what you can add to what you are eating, rather than what you need to stop eating.
- Try to include a fruit and/or vegetable every time you eat. They will provide tons of vitamins and minerals to help your body function at its best.
- Include variety in your eating routine. Try lots of different foods and switch things up frequently. Not only does this keep things interesting, but it also provides a wide variety of nutrients for your body!
- Eat an appropriate balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Pair foods together to help you feel more full and satisfied.
- Find ways to increase your fiber intake. Fiber helps you feel more full and satisfied, but most people don’t get enough! Fiber is found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
- Do not go longer than a few hours without eating. Getting to the point you feel ravenous often leads to overeating. You will feel better and more energized when you eat regularly throughout the day.
- Teenagers will benefit from at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day. Find fun things to do that get you up and moving!
- Meditation and talk therapy are great tools teengers can take advantage of to get on top of stress, anxiety, depression, and other challenging mental health struggles.
- Try to consistently get enough sleep. Most teenagers need at least 9 hours, but see what feels best for your body. If you have trouble sleeping, try limiting screen usage, having a high protein snack before bed, creating a bedtime routine, or meditating.
- Make time for the things that you enjoy like playing with friends, watching a favorite show, reading, playing sports, dancing, or other things. Try finding hobbies that keep you active, help you interact with others, enlighten your mind, and relieve stress!
Should Teenagers Track Calories?
There are many ways of tracking calories nowadays. Tons of apps make it easier than ever to keep track of what you are eating. However, tracking calories is not always a healthy behavior.
Teenagers should be wary of tracking calories and here is the main reason why: it often leads to listening more to your calorie tracker than to your body! If your calorie tracking app says you only have 100 calories left for the day, but your body needs more fuel than that, I would much rather have you listen to and honor what your body is telling you.
Additionally, calorie needs change on a daily basis. Some days you are more active than others. Or maybe you had a long day mentally, or are going through a growth spurt. Or maybe you didn’t eat enough the day before and your body is trying to make up for that.
There are tons of things that affect how much energy your body needs, and although we might be able to estimate how many calories your body needs, it will never be perfect.
How Parents Can be Involved
Parents should be careful how they handle situations with their teenagers, especially regarding weight. Although parents usually have good intentions, conversations about weight do not always end well. Here are a few tips for parents who want to help their teens to be at a healthy weight.
- Avoid commenting on your teen’s weight. Even complimenting your child’s weight can have negative effects. If teens get positive attention at a lower weight, they may associate their worth with their weight and become hyper-focused on achieving a certain weight.
- Model healthy eating and exercise behaviors. Eat mindfully, try new foods, and eat a variety of foods, both nutrient dense foods and not so nutrient dense ones.
- Don’t force your teen to eat a certain way. Teenagers like independence and don’t usually respond positively to being told what to do (maybe you have figured that out already).
- Talk positively about your body and about food. Remember that food has no moral value and that no one is “good” or “bad” for eating certain foods.
- Eat meals together as a family whenever possible. Make meal times a positive experience where teens can enjoy their meal along with positive conversation. Avoid argumentative topics and make family meal time something that teens look forward to.
- Offer treats and less healthy foods frequently. That might sound a little bit counterintuitive, but when children and teens are used to having those “fun” foods available whenever they want, they are less likely to overeat or binge on them later.
- Plan active things to do as a family. Go for walks together, play outside, have a dance party, go swimming- there are so many fun things to do to get your kids moving!
- Do not single one child out, making them eat or exercise differently from everyone else because of their weight.
If a teenager is gaining weight at a rapid pace, they should focus on developing healthy habits more than changing weight. The main goal should be to slow the rate of weight gain. Teenagers should always avoid restrictive diets, as they can be dangerous for someone who is still in a phase of growth and development.
Seek help from an intuitive eating dietitian who can encourage healthy habits and a positive relationship with food. If your healthcare professional makes your teenager feel bad about themselves because of their weight, it is probably time to find someone new!
As a parent, the best way to support your teenager in their health is to model healthy habits and be encouraging loving despite their weight. Your teenager should never feel like their worth is dependent on how much they weigh!
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About Child and Teen BMI. Cdc.gov. Published March 17, 2021.
Halson SH. Sleep and athletes. Gssiweb.org. Published July 2017.