The “COVID-19” weight gain started out as a joke about living more sedentary lifestyles, but now has many parents wondering, “Is my teen overweight?” Weight is undoubtedly an important health measurement and can also be a sensitive subject for teens to talk about. Awareness of the facts, risk factors, and successful strategies for healthy weight maintenance can help you navigate teen weight gain. So, how can you tell if your teen is overweight?
If your teen’s growth chart trends are regularly above the 85th percentile they may be overweight. A dietitian and healthcare team can assess if your teen is overweight as well as assist you in monitoring your teen’s weight trends.
Your teen lives in their body each day, so be sure to involve them in the process. It is important that teens understand the risks of ignoring health advice and invest in implementing healthy habits during adolescence and early adulthood.
Read on to find out if your teen falls into the overweight or obese weight range, and to learn tips for staying within a healthy weight range.
Causes of Obesity in Teens
Many foods can be part of a healthy diet, however recent data shows some teens have calorie intakes above the recommended amount. Eating choices have a large impact on teen health and can even affect their future.
Since the teenage years are a time marked with rapid growth and development, adolescents have requirements that are slightly higher than the average 2,000 calorie diet. The following table from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics shows a more detailed list of daily calorie needs based on age, sex, and level of physical activity.
Due to the teenage years being a time marked with change, adolescents may struggle to stay within the appropriate weight range for the following reasons:
- Nutrient-poor sources of calories
- Diet high in added sugar, salt, and saturated fats
- Body image
- Negative parental or media influence
- Dieting trends
- Emphasis on or exercising for physical appearance
- Sugar-sweetened beverage consumption
- Increased independence (teens eating fast food and snack foods more often)
- Increased screen time and sedentary activities
Overweight vs. Obese Weight Ranges In Teenagers
The terms “overweight” and “obese” are used to describe weight ranges. Having a weight measurement that falls within these categories is considered unhealthy for a given height, and it may increase the risk of your teen developing certain diseases and health problems, especially if this trend continues into adulthood.
However, in today’s weight-obsessed society, obese and overweight have become terms used to stereotype. A recent article from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics aptly states:
“Overweight and obese are terms that refer only to a general estimate of an individual’s body weight. They do not in any way reflect on a person’s competence, self-discipline, drive or ability to lead a healthy lifestyle.”
In healthcare, overweight and obese are words used to denote a specific weight status, and it is where an individual falls in the body-mass-index (BMI) scale. BMI-for-age is the most commonly used indicator to measure size and growth in the U.S. for teens and children, and this differs from the BMI ranges used for adults.
BMI-for-age can be used as a screening tool for teens but does not determine a diagnosis. BMI is a number that is calculated from an individual’s height and weight, and expressed in terms of a percentile. This percentile simply indicates where your teen is in relation to the recommended weight range for their age.
The following image from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows how to interpret weight status from a percentile range. For example, if the doctor told you your teen was 89th percentile, your child would be considered in the overweight category. It is important to remember that this number is not permanent, however it is important that weight is measured and documented so that trends and risk levels can be determined.
When Should I Be Worried About My Teen’s Weight?
When it comes to your teen’s weight, it is important to understand that a proper assessment comes from a combination of measures. As your child’s weight and height has been tracked over time, growth charts can help assess if your child is leaning towards overweight or obese criteria. A registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) or physician can help guide you through the process of understanding different assessment measures or following weight trends in your teen’s medical history.
The CDC has an excellent Child & Teen BMI Calculator that can help assist you as a patient or provider in the healthcare process while determining a teen’s weight and level of risk. A healthcare practitioner needs other information, such as health history, eating habits, or additional lab work (blood tests) to determine a more specific amount of health risk.
If you believe your teen is overweight or obese according to the CDC growth charts and BMI calculator, meet with their healthcare provider to discuss your concerns. You should also meet with a professional if your child has gained a significant amount of weight in a short amount of time.
Risk Factors of Being Overweight or Obese for Teens
The prevalence of obese children and teens has increased dramatically in recent decades, so much so that the trends of obesity are commonly referred to as the “obesity epidemic”. Obesity in teens has been reported at levels as high as 20.6% among 12- to 19- year olds, and this is concerning due to the fact that obesity puts teens at serious risk for poor health. Being overweight or obese includes harmful effects on the body now as well as damage to the body in the long-term.
Common risk factors include:
- High blood pressure and/or cholesterol
- Impaired glucose tolerance
- Insulin resistance
- Type 2 diabetes
- Breathing problems (i.e. sleep apnea, asthma)
- Joint problems or discomfort
- Liver, gallbladder or gastrointestinal disease
- Psychological distress (i.e. depression, behavioral problems)
- Low self-esteem and self-reported quality of life
- Impaired functioning, including social, physical, and emotional
- and more…
Teen obesity is a predictor of the likelihood of adult obesity, which is linked to even more serious health conditions including heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer. If a child is overweight, it predicts even more severe obesity as an adult.
However, it is important to recognize that overweight or obese teens are not destined to become overweight or obese adults. There are many simple yet successful tips that can help get your teen back on track to maintaining a healthy weight and reducing their risk, both now and in the future.
Basic Tips for Helping Your Teen Get Back to a Healthy Weight
Since being overweight or obese is linked to many health risks, it is important to find a weight maintenance strategy that works for you and your teen. Teens are not commonly recommended to lose weight (check with your healthcare provider for specific individual recommendations), but instead to “grow into their weight” as they hit growth spurts by avoiding putting on excessive weight.
Now is the time for teens to adopt healthy habits that will benefit them for the rest of their lives. If they learn healthy habits now, they will never have to worry about “dieting” in their future. Here are some helpful strategies for teens to get to a healthy weight:
Swap out Sugar-Sweetened Beverages for a Better Option
Soda and sugary drinks add a lot of “empty” calories to a teenager’s diet without adding much nutrition. Switching from soft drinks to beverages like water, milk, or fortified dairy-alternatives may not seem like a large shift. However, a small change in the diet such as this one can contribute to more nutrients fortifying a teen’s body and support healthy habits down the line.
Add Something Nutritious On the Side
Favorite foods are still allowed, it’s all about balance. Opting for a side of vegetables or salad can potentially make a meal like pizza more nutritious. You can also encourage grilled fruits and vegetables as toppings instead of extra servings of meat or cheese.
Expand their Palate Without Expanding their Plate
Food from other cultures are often served in smaller portions and also may be more nutrient-rich. For example, beans and lentils are packed with plant-based protein and common in Eastern styles of eating.
Exotic dishes can both spice things up while also keeping portion and plate sizes in check. And speaking of spice, new seasonings/spices can be a great way to add flavor and excitement to less-than desirable foods like vegetables.
Look for Plant-based Options
Look for items that have plant foods or whole grains as the base of the meal when eating out. If you have concerns regarding added ingredients (i.e. added sodium, sugars, or saturated fats), be sure to look at nutritional information, which can easily be located online. Try substituting high-fat sides like fries for a fruit cup or fresh veggies.
Have Healthy Foods Available and Convenient
Keeping naturally nutrient-rich foods on hand, such as fruit or vegetables, can help curb a craving when the time comes. Also, creating healthy pairings for your teen, such as whole wheat crackers and hummus, can help them to reach for something ripe with nutrients in a rush rather than just taking the pre-packaged, processed option.
Buy healthy snacks in bulk and pre-portion them in reusable bags and cut-up fruits and veggies for quick snacks. You can also buy individual containers of Greek yogurt, hummus, trail mix, cheese, etc. for grab-and-go healthy meals and snacks.
It’s also important to keep these healthier options in view so it’s one of the first things a busy teenager will grab.
Small Changes Make a Big Difference
Focus on one small change at a time. What goal does your teen feel like they can easily change and work on? Involve your teen as much as possible in food planning and preparation, and focus on healthier changes as a whole family! Small switches add up in the long run.
Encourage your teen to focus on one small swap at a time, such as opting for water instead of soda or getting wheat bread instead of white bread. Over time, these tiny tweaks here and there will contribute to powerful healthy habits that will benefit them for a lifetime of health.
Summary- From Overweight to Overjoyed
The benefits of getting your teen to stay in a healthy weight range are many. The knowledge of helping prepare your child for a healthy life in the long-term can be rewarding and extend beyond the present and into the future.
While excessive weight in the teen years is linked to the likelihood of developing severe symptoms and serious illness in the future, healthy eating habits developed during the teen years can improve quality of life, for today and for the future.
Why Is My Kid Always Hungry? Your teen might never seem full and tend to “graze” on food and snacks all day. This is really common for teenagers since teenagers need more calories than many adults as they go through growth spurts. Teens can also eat out of boredom, so try setting a schedule of 3 meals and 1-3 snacks per day where your teen can fuel up and eliminate grazing and boredom eating.
Should I Tell My Teen They Need to Lose Weight? You shouldn’t ever make weight a big deal, no matter how much your teen weighs. Continually obsessing about your teen’s weight may increase the risk of unhealthy eating habits, eating disorders, and poor self image.
If your teen needs to lose weight, you can have a conversation that focuses on HEALTH and not WEIGHT. You should also make healthy changes as an entire family and never obsess about your own weight or diet around your teen.
How Can I Help My Teenager Lose Weight? First of all, be sure to check in with a healthcare professional to ensure that weight loss is appropriate for your teenage (it usually isn’t). Encourage your teen to adopt one healthy habit at a time and have the whole family get involved. Increase physical activity, eat more fruits and vegetables, limit packaged and processed foods, etc.
Check out my Non-Diet Approach for Healthy Teens Ebook for more specific tips!
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Ellis E. How Many Calories Does My Teen Need. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (Eatright.org). 2019. Accessed at https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/dietary-guidelines-and-myplate/how-many-calories-does-my-teen-need
Ellis E. Healthy Eating for Healthy Teens. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (Eatright.org). 2020. Accessed at https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/dietary-guidelines-and-myplate/healthy-weights-for-healthy-teens
Healthy Weight, Nutrition, and Physical Activity. About Child & Teen BMI. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2020. Accessed at https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/assessing/bmi/childrens_bmi/about_childrens_bmi.html#
Klemm S. Defining Overweight and Obese. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (Eatright.org). 2019. Accessed at https://www.eatright.org/health/weight-loss/overweight-and-obesity/defining-overweight-and-obese
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