Higher Body Weight (Overweight and Obesity) in Youth: A Guide for Parents

  • Young men's version of this guide

If your child’s health care provider (HCP) told you that he or she has a weight in a range that might be unhealthy, you may be experiencing a variety of emotions. It is important to keep in mind that while higher weights have been associated with some health concerns, some individuals naturally live in a larger body and it is more important to focus on positive health behaviors rather than weight.  Even if their weight doesn’t change, behavioral changes will make them healthier! It’s also important to remember that having a positive body image is more important than any number on a scale. Help your child understand that everyone’s body is different and try to focus on their positive parts that make them special.

Words Matter

Choose your words carefully when talking to your teen. Don’t use words like “fat” or “obese” when describing your child as they can be harmful to self-image and can actually lead to shame, more eating or use of harmful dieting behaviors. Focusing on their health and behaviors, rather than their weight, is the most helpful approach.

How do I know if my child’s weight is worrisome?

Health care providers use something called Body Mass Index (BMI) to evaluate weight. BMI is a tool that shows a ratio (or comparison) of height to weight and can be used to estimate body fat. Perhaps more important than the actual BMI value is the trend over time. If your child’s BMI has changed more or less than expected over a period of time, that might be cause for more evaluation.

Are certain weights unhealthy?

Focusing on positive health behaviors can reduce the risk of diseases such as:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Asthma
  • Sleep apnea
  • Hypertension
  • High blood pressure
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Joint pain
  • High cholesterol and/or triglycerides
  • Fatty liver disease
  • Metabolic syndrome

Usually, these health concerns don’t affect someone as a teen, but can make them more likely to have them as an adult. There is increasing awareness that people can be healthy at any size or weight.

How did my teen’s weight  develop into a potentially unhealthy range?

Studies have shown that weight is closely tied to genetics as well as individual metabolism (how quickly a body turns food into energy), and environmental factors such as diet and exercise. There is nothing that a person can do to change their genetics. However, environment can be changed by getting more exercise, eating healthier food, lower stress levels, getting enough sleep and less screen time.

My child’s health care provider (HCP) told them to lose weight, what should I do?

If your child’s HCP told you that their health would be improved by losing weight, ask about whether maintaining the current weight might be a good first step. For adolescents who could still be growing, this is often an appropriate goal.  We like to focus on behavioral change rather than focusing on weight numbers—we find it overall is more motivating and has lower risk of causing harm (for example, leading to disordered eating). If your teen feels ready to make lifestyle changes but isn’t sure where to start, they can ask their HCP for a referral to an exercise program and/or an appointment with a registered dietitian. These small lifestyle changes can make a big difference towards health:

  • Increase movement. If your teen is not currently physically active, encourage them to start with a small goal of walking 30 minutes a few times per week. Gradually add more minutes, days and intensity to the workouts. It’s important that they find something that they enjoy doing as they’ll be more likely to stick with it. Consider joining them on a walk or playing a favorite sport!
  • Decrease processed or refined carbohydrates. This includes soda, juice, candy, sweets, baked goods, chips, etc.
  • Eat more fruits and veggies. These foods are packed full of important nutrients and also contain fiber, which can help with weight management.
  • Drink more water. Whether drinking water instead of sugar sweetened beverages or just trying to stay well-hydrated, a good goal is to drink about 8 glasses per day.
  • Get enough sleep. Research studies have shown that the amount of sleep you get has a direct effect on weight. If making the other changes sound too hard or challenging right now for your teen, this might be a good first step! Encourage good sleep habits in your teen such as turning off screens prior to getting into bed and keeping a consistent bedtime.
  • Eat regular meals and snacks throughout the day. It’s important to avoid becoming overly hungry which can lead to eating larger portions than the body needs.
  • Check-in with feelings. If you think that your teen’s weight or eating might be directly tied to emotions, ask his or her health care provider about meeting with a therapist who can help work through these emotions and find alternatives to using food as comfort.
  • Limit screen time. We know screens are everywhere. But try to limit the amount of time your teen uses them. Most importantly, try not to let them eat when watching TV shows, movies, or using a computer, phone, or tablet. Eating while watching a screen keeps you from eating mindfully and typically leads to overeating—and less enjoyment of your food!
  • Encourage family meals. These days everyone has busy schedules, but research studies have shown that eating dinner together as a family (with the TV turned off). Try to fit this on when schedules allow.
Remember, there are hundreds of thousands of teens dealing with this issue and plenty of resources and support. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your teen’s health care provider to ask what resources are available to your family such as: support groups, discounted gym memberships, or meeting individually with a counselor or dietitian.