Teens & Obesity

Obesity is on the rise, especially among our children. But we have some suggestions for you to help your teen maintain a healthy weight.


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We are a nation of fatties. And we are raising the next generation of fatties. Hard words? Perhaps. But that's the word from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

An analysis from a recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that approximately 14 percent of children ages 6 to 11 are overweight, and that 12 percent of adolescents ages 12 to 17 are also too heavy.

Those figures are bad enough, but when compared to the previous government surveys done in the '60s and '70s, they are shocking. In those days, only 5 percent of our children were overweight.

What happened?

Doctors at the Mayo Clinic and other experts studying the problem of obesity all point to lifestyle as the primary cause of excessive weight gain. You serve normal meals, and there is no evidence that your teen is wolfing down fattening foods.

Tackling the Problem

Some parents shrug off the problem of weight, thinking that, as their kids grow, the situation will resolve itself. But that's rarely true.

Eighty percent of children who are obese between the ages of 10 and 13 will be obese when they are adults, say doctors at the Mayo Clinic. And that means health problems down the road -- problems like diabetes, high blood pressure, gallbladder disease, breathing problems, some forms of cancer, and more.

Then there's the social stigma. Heavy teens usually are not very good at sports, and so they don't get picked for any teams. Heavy teens are often not considered cute by the opposite sex and don't get invited to parties or out on dates. Heavy teens are discriminated against when applying for jobs and even for college admissions.

Add to that the knowledge that there's hardly anyone more miserable, more filled with self-loathing, than a fat teenager, and you'll clearly see the need to step in and help your child.

Get Your Teens Active

Is your teenager too sedentary? There's a pretty good chance that this is the case. Nationwide, our kids tend to be more inactive than in previous years. They spend more time in front of the television, and -- lately -- more hours playing computer games or surfing the 'Net.

Referring to a Surgeon General's report she commissioned on physical activity and health, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Donna Shalala, said that nearly half of young people aged 12 to 21 are not vigorously active on a regular basis.

Shalala also said that physical activity "declines dramatically with age during adolescence," and that girl teens are much less physically active than boy teens.

Sure, say the experts, there can be a genetic predisposition to becoming overweight, but that predisposition has not changed in the last 30 years. Yet the percentage of overweight kids has ballooned.

Get Them Outside

The less vigorous an exercise is, the longer it has to be done to gain any real benefit. The list below suggests several moderate exercises, in order of intensity, along with recommended times.

  • Playing volleyball for 45 minutes
  • Playing touch football for 30 to 45 minutes
  • Walking 1 3/4 miles in 35 minutes
  • Shooting baskets for 30 minutes
  • Bicycling 5 miles in 30 minutes
  • Fast social dancing for 30 minutes
  • Swimming laps for 20 minutes
  • Playing basketball for 15 to 20 minutes

Helping a Heavy Teen

Experts suggests that you as parents need to take the first steps toward helping your teen attain a healthy weight. What follows are some suggestions to help you get started:

Gather Information For one week, keep a diary of your teen's physical activities and everything that he or she eats. Ask questions, and be frank about your reasons for being so inquisitive. You may learn that the school's physical education classes are few and short in duration. Or that the time spent at basketball practice was actually time spent sitting on the bench.

Also the munchies may strike on the way home from school -- which is also on the way past the pizza shop or ice cream stand. Or just before bed, when tired kids grab any snack that's convenient. (Read cookies or chips.)

Make Plans for Change Once armed with information, you can begin to make moderate changes in your teen's eating and activity patterns. If possible, make this a family project. Your teenager will have an easier time of it if he or she doesn't have to watch others at the table eat with abandon.

You might, for example, serve only enough food for only one helping; toss any fatty snacks, such as chips, in the trash and replace them with fruits and vegetables; or cut out desserts for everyone.

Work toward the right attitude. Make clear to your teenager that this change in lifestyle is not a form of punishment. It is not a painful repentance for being bad, for overeating, and for getting fat.

Instead, encourage your teen to think of these changes in eating and exercise patterns as useful tools -- tools that will help him or her achieve a desired goal.

Keep your teenager on track with a weekly weigh-in. Remember, the goal is to lose only a pound or so each week. Join your teenager in applauding the disappearance of every ounce of fat. Rejoice over the firmer arms or tighter tummy.

Don't Be a Drill Sergeant Avoid launching into a full-blown Parris Island boot-camp routine. It'll exhaust your kid and ultimately backfire. Besides, it's simply not necessary.

Even the simplest exercise does the trick. Your teen will burn nearly the same number of calories, for example, walking a mile as he or she would running a mile. Walking just takes twice as long.

Incorporate More Activity into Family Life A summer picnic that includes a nice bike ride through the park or a swim in the lake is ideal. A family rake-a-thon of fallen leaves is good, too. Keep the back of your mind humming on ways to build exercise into your teen's day.

Seeking Medical Advice

Your family doctor or pediatrician -- who has kept your teen's height and weight charts since childhood and knows your teen's medical history -- can estimate the weight your son or daughter should be.

The first step usually is to determine just how much of your teen's body is composed of fat. Weighing on a scale doesn't tell the whole story because muscle is heavier than fat. A prizefighter with bulging muscles can tip the scales as a heavyweight, but he is not fat.

The official, scientific way to measure a person's body fat is to do it underwater. That, however, requires a laboratory with special equipment.

Your family doctor, instead, may measure skinfold thickness and do a bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA).

To measure skinfold thickness the doctor will use a special instrument -- much like calipers -- to grab a pinch of skin at certain targeted parts of the body. These are parts where fat tends to accumulate, such as the back of the upper arm, the abdomen, thigh, and so forth. The amount of flesh that's held in the instrument (an inch, 2 inches) allows the doctor to estimate the percentage of fat in the body.

The next step may be the BIA, which sends a harmless amount of electrical current through the body. The current reveals the amount of water in the body. Generally, a higher percentage of water indicates a larger amount of muscle and lean tissue.

The doctor then will do the math, translating the percent of water into an estimate of body fat and lean body mass. Your doctor also may employ "body mass index measures." The body mass index is found by dividing a person's weight in kilograms by height in meters squared.

After all is pinched and prodded, your doctor may say something like this to your teenager:

"Mary (or Joe), I've estimated how much of your body is made up of fat, and it would be good for you to replace some of that fat with lean muscle. By exercising and watching what you eat, you should comfortably be able to lose about a pound a week. At the same time, your body is growing -- so you should start looking and feeling much better in just a few months."

Your doctor will not recommend diet pills or a starvation diet. Instead the recommendation will be to avoid fatty foods and to do 30 minutes of moderate physical activity every day.

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