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Women's Health

Weight Management

Facts about obesity in adolescence

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, about 20% of children ages 6 to 11 in the U.S. are considered overweight and 18% of teens (ages 12 to 19) are overweight. Many more people are now overweight than 15 years ago. This increase is seen in both sexes and all ages. Overweight or obese adolescents are more likely to be overweight or obese adults.

What is obesity?

Obesity is a generalized accumulation of body fat. It is found by measuring both the height and weight of the adolescent and calculating the BMI (body mass index). Obesity is defined as a BMI of 30 or more. Overweight is defined as a BMI of 25 to 29.9. You can figure out your child's BMI here. Research studies suggest that overweight or obese adolescents may become overweight or obese adults.

What causes teens to become overweight?

The following are some of the factors that may contribute to overweight adolescents:

  • Easy availability of food, especially high-calorie snack food

  • Parents' attitudes toward food

  • Eating more fast foods

  • Using food as a reward or punishment to change behaviors

  • Lack of exercise

  • TV watching and snacking

  • Not knowing how to eat healthy

  • Heredity (parents' and family members' weight)

Weight management

Girl standing on a scale

Treatment for obesity in children and adolescents involves changes in diet and more exercise. It is important for parents and the adolescent to be ready and willing to make the change. Generally, weight loss is not recommended for babies and young children who are still growing and developing. The goal of treatment for these children is to maintain their weight while they continue to grow taller. Losing weight may be recommended for obese adolescents who have completed their growth or weigh more than their healthy adult weight. The following are some of the general guidelines that may be followed in treating your adolescent.

For children older than 7 years of age

  • The goal is to stay at a baseline weight at first. Then add slow changes in eating and exercise to reach slow weight loss as recommended by your adolescent's healthcare provider.

  • At this age, a child or adolescent should follow adult guidelines, and limit fat intake.

  • Eat a variety of foods that are low in calories. Consider the following:

    • Your adolescent needs enough calories to maintain his or her energy level, but no more than he or she can burn off. This is called an energy balance.

      • If he or she takes in more calories than he or she burns, he or she gains weight.

      • If he or she takes in fewer calories than he or she burns, he or she loses weight.

      • If he or she balances the two, he or she maintains his or her weight.

    • Even when dieting, calories should not be cut back so much that your adolescent's energy needs are not met. The number of calories your adolescent needs depends mainly on age, gender, and activity level.

  • Eat fewer high-fat foods.

  • Eat more vegetables and fruits.

  • Eat fewer sweets, candy, cookies, chips, and sodas.

  • Change to skim milk and low-fat dairy products.

  • Refer to support groups.

What can I do as parent to help with the management of obesity?

  • Do not use food as a reward. Use other activities as a reward for good behavior.

  • Have family meal time and snack times.

  • Give only healthy choices for your adolescent to choose from. For example, stock the refrigerator with apples or yogurt, rather than cookies and chips.

  • Have the entire family become involved in a healthy eating plan, not just the adolescent who is overweight.

  • Encourage activities that promote exercise, such as riding a bike, walking, or skating.

  • Seek help from your pediatrician or a nutritionist who specializes in children and adolescents. He or she can help guide you through the management of obesity in your child in a safe and healthy way. 

Online Medical Reviewer: Adler, Liora C., MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Bass, Pat F. III, MD, MPH
Date Last Reviewed: 2/21/2016
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