More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Teen Health: Dieting
February 28, 2005

It is common for teens to worry about their weight or appearance, and many turn to dieting for various reasons. Some teens play sports and want to lose weight to be in top physical condition or to compete in a certain weight category. Others are truly overweight and really do need to lose weight for health reasons. Some teens are not overweight but are unhappy about their weight or body shape. They see models and actors on television and in magazines and may wish they looked more like them. However, there is no magic diet or pill that will make your teen look like someone else and furthermore, trying to look like other people is a sure set up for disappointment. Instead, it is best for your teen to be at the weight that is right for her, depending on her body shape and energy needs.

If your teen comes to you for dieting advice or if you notice that your teen is dieting, first ask why he wants to lose weight. Let her know that the reason to lose weight is to be healthy, not to look like a model or an actress. Work together with your teen to figure out the "right" healthy weight for her. Remember that each person's body is different and weight alone does not tell if a person is overweight. Age, body type, gender and stage of pubertal development all need to be considered. For example, a muscular person may actually weigh more than someone who looks larger but has more body fat, because muscle weighs more than fat.

It also is helpful to look at your teen's body mass index (BMI), a more scientific way to look at body size. BMI is calculated from a person's weight and height and gives an estimate of the amount of body fat. Since total body fat normally changes with a child?s age, BMI is compared with age- and sex-specific percentile standards based on large national surveys of children up to age 20. Based on the current recommendations of expert committees, children with BMI values greater than the 85th percentile are considered at risk of becoming overweight, while those children at or above the 95th percentile of the sex-specific BMI growth charts are considered overweight.

If your teen is at risk of being overweight or actually is overweight, or if you have any questions about whether your teen should lose weight, talk with your pediatrician. It is particularly important to seek medical advice before starting any weight-loss program. Your pediatrician can help determine an ideal weight for your teen, give her guidance about dieting and refer her to a nutritionist, if necessary.

Before starting any diet, it is important to let your teen know that weight management is about long-term success. People who lose weight quickly by crash dieting or using diet pills almost always gain the weight back again and sometimes even gain more weight back than they lost. The best weight-loss strategy is one that your teen can maintain for a lifetime.

Here are some simple guidelines to help get things started. Talk with your pediatrician or a nutritionist for more diet advice specific for your teen.

  • Eat breakfast. Make sure that your teen eats a healthy breakfast every day. Although many teens think that skipping breakfast will help them lose weight, it is not true. People who eat breakfast actually eat fewer calories during the day. Even a quick breakfast, such as cereal, yogurt or toast with peanut butter, can help to get the day (and the diet) off to a good start.
  • Drink plenty of water. Your teen should try to drink at least four, and as many as eight, 8-ounce glasses of water each day.
  • Watch the other drinks. Many teens drink lots of soda, juice or sports drinks during the day. Although most high schools have soda vending machines on campus, soda has lots of "empty" calories with no nutritional value. Juice and sports drinks also are high in calories though usually have some vitamins and/or minerals. Cutting out one or two cans of these high-calorie, low-nutrition drinks from the diet can save 150 to 300 calories per day. In addition, switch from whole milk to low-fat or skim milk, which has the same nutritional value but less fat and fewer calories.
  • Eat less, more often. Make sure that your teen is eating three balanced meals each day. Eating healthy snacks in between meals will help your teen eat smaller portions at meals. Some suggestions for healthy snacks include raw vegetables with low-fat dip, fruit, whole-wheat pretzels and low-fat yogurt.
  • Eat a variety of healthy foods. Your teen should eat foods from each of the food groups every day, including whole grains, lean high-protein foods such as chicken, fish or beans, and at least five servings of fruits and veggies.
  • Avoid fad diets and diet pills. Your teen needs to eat a variety of foods to stay healthy. Substituting a diet shake for a healthy meal will not give your teen the proper nutrients to grow. Especially avoid diet pills, which may have side effects that can be harmful to growing teens. Diet pills should only be taken under the advice of a doctor.
  • Exercise. This is extremely important. Not only will exercise help your teen lose weight by burning calories, it also will help her to stay fit and be healthy. Your teen does not have to play a sport or belong to a gym to exercise. She can simply take a walk after school or help out with chores at home. The goal is 30 minutes of vigorous activity on most days, but at least three to five times per week.
  • Don't banish certain foods, and learn to forgive. Eliminating certain foods from your teen's diet, such as chocolate cake or ice cream, is a sure way to make her crave it even more, possibly everyday. In addition, your teen needs some fat in her diet and should be able to eat at least small portions of her favorite foods. Overall, your teen should have no more than one-third of total calories from fat and no more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol each day. If your teen wants to have ice cream after dinner, have her skip the potato chips at lunch. It also is important to let your teen know that if she does eat both the potato chips and the ice cream, she needs to forgive herself. She can always try again tomorrow.
If your teen is dieting, it is a good opportunity for everyone in the family to learn healthier eating habits. Parents especially need to set a good example for their teen. Telling your teen to eat carrot sticks while you munch on potato chips is not fair. It is much easier to diet with someone than it is to diet alone. You also could start exercising together on a regular basis to promote good health for everyone in the family. Get a family membership to a gym, take a bike ride together, or play a game of tennis with your teen. This also may serve as a way to bring the family closer together.

Many parents worry that if their teen diets, she will develop an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. Dieting alone does not cause eating disorders; they are very complicated and usually the result of many factors. If your teen thinks of dieting as "eating well" to be healthy inside and out, then dieting is unlikely to lead to an eating disorder. Make sure that you encourage healthy eating habits rather than weight loss, and do not obsess about the amount of fat in each meal that your teen eats. Build self-esteem in your teen. Point out her strengths and praise her for the things that he does.

You should be aware of warning signs for a possible eating disorder. Your teen's dieting may be out of control if she:

  • Continues to diet, even when she reaches her "target weight"
  • Withdraws from family and friends
  • Performs poorly in school
  • Eats only when others are not around
  • Starts to think about food all the time
  • Develops a fear of food
  • Goes to the bathroom immediately after meals to vomit
  • Starts exercising several times a day rather than several times a week
  • Develops headaches or dizziness from lack of food
If your teen develops any of these warning signs or you have other concerns, you need to talk with her right away and call her pediatrician for advice.

The take-home message to give your teen is that it's not what you weigh that is important. What really matters is having a healthy body, inside and out. Exercising and eating right are excellent ways to keep the body in great shape.
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