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Teens On Weight-Loss Programs: Is It Ever Okay?

Blog Teens On Weight-Loss Programs: Is It Ever Okay?

A look at whether weight loss programs are healthy for a teenager.


When we think of weight-loss programs (like Weight Watchers) we tend to think of them in terms of helping adults. But, are these options acceptable for teens?

The short answer: no. “For most children, I would not consider having them on any kind of specific weight-loss plan,” says Michael McKenna, MD, pediatrician at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. Why? Their bodies are still developing, he explains, and being on a restrictive program could potentially lead to a deficiency of the nutrients needed for healthy development.

What if you’re concerned that your child’s BMI is too high?  

“BMI should not be used as a definitive point of diagnosing a child or adolescent as overweight or obese, but rather a tool to help identify those at risk,” says Anna King, RD, CSP, a clinical dietitian at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. “Each patient should be evaluated on an individual basis by a physician or dietitian.”

It’s important to loop in medical experts when discussing your child’s weight. However, since it can be a sensitive topic, it can be better to have the conversation started by someone outside the family. 

“When I talk to families about having a healthier lifestyle I ask them to think about three different areas: food, liquids and activity,” says Dr. McKenna. “I have them make a small, but significant goal for change in two of the three areas.” Dr. McKenna says he also provides a goal for physical activity like running, dancing or playing sports (30 to 60 minutes a day) since many kids are not active enough. Whatever kids can do to be active is fine, he says, but they need to get their heart rate up.

“Then, I talk with them about their current diet and we look for places they can have immediate success, either with food or with liquids,” explains Dr. McKenna. Examples include increasing fruit and vegetable servings, decreasing portion sizes, limiting junk food. When it comes to liquids, it’s about increasing water intake and decreasing or eliminating sugar-added beverages.

King also notes that a healthy eating program involves low-fat dairy products and eating enough lean proteins. If parents are confused on just how much, she says, they should consider seeing a licensed dietician to put together a healthy meal plan.

How can parents best tackle the weight issue?  

The first step is often realizing there is an actual problem. Too often, says Dr. McKenna, parents are in denial. They will say their child just has some baby fat and that they will outgrow it, he says. “This may be true, briefly, when the child goes through puberty, but if the child does not have healthy eating habits established well before then, they will continue to make poor food choices and end up gaining the weight right back after puberty. The literature is clear that obese toddlers end up becoming obese teenagers who end up becoming obese adults. Without changes in behaviors, the weight will not go away,” Dr. McKenna explains.

Offering up the right tools for healthy eating—by providing plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables—is a good place to start. And remember, it shouldn’t just be your teen making healthy choices. “It is not fun or easy to be the only one making a change,” says Dr. McKenna.  “For success, everyone in the family needs to make changes.”

One way to do this? “Make meal time a family activity and increase the number of home-prepared meals,” says King. She explains that eating together, with everyone enjoying the same food, helps diminish feelings of isolation that a child might experience if they were on a “special” diet.

Also, addressing issues as a family and creating an understanding environment in the home helps children feel less ashamed and can result in maintaining healthier lifestyle habits. “Receiving education and counseling as a family from a physician or dietitian can provide the best chance of success for weight maintenance or weight loss,” says King.

-- By Judy Koutsky

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