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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Teen weight loss: Safe steps to a healthy weight

Teenage obesity is a dangerous — and growing — problem. But what can you do about it? Plenty. Turn your concern about your teenager's weight into action.

There's no magic bullet for teen weight loss. The key to success is adopting healthy habits that can last a lifetime.

Start with a heart-to-heart

If your teen is overweight, he or she is probably concerned about the excess weight, too. Aside from lifelong health risks such as high blood pressure and diabetes, the social and emotional fallout of being overweight can be devastating for a teenager. Offer support and gentle understanding — and a willingness to help your teen take control of the problem.

You might say, "I can't change your weight. That's up to you. But I can help you make the right decisions."

Dispute unrealistic images

Weight and body image can be delicate issues — especially for teenage girls. When it comes to teen weight loss, remind your teen that there's no single ideal and no perfect body. The right weight for one person might not be the right weight for another.

Rather than talking about "fat" and "thin," encourage your teen to focus on practicing the behaviors that promote a healthy weight. Your family doctor can help set realistic goals for body mass index and weight based on your teen's age, height and general health.

Resist quick fixes

Help your teen understand that losing weight — and keeping it off — is a lifetime commitment. Fad diets may rob your growing teen of iron, calcium and other essential nutrients. Weight-loss pills and other quick fixes don't address the root of the problem. And the effects are often short-lived. Without a permanent change in habits, any lost weight is likely to return — and then some.

Promote activity

Like adults, teens need about 60 minutes of physical activity a day. But that doesn't mean 60 solid minutes at a stretch. Shorter, repeated bursts of activity during the day can help burn calories, too.

Team sports through school or community programs are great ways to get active. If your teen isn't an athlete or is hesitant to participate in certain sports, that's OK. Encourage him or her to walk, bike or in-line skate to school, or to walk a few laps through the halls before class. Suggest trading one hour of after-school channel surfing for shooting baskets in the driveway, jumping rope or walking the dog. Even household chores such as vacuuming and washing the car have aerobic benefits.

Eat breakfast

If your teen fights the alarm clock the way it is, getting up even earlier to eat breakfast may be a tough sell. But it's important. A nutritious breakfast will jump-start your teen's metabolism and give him or her energy to face the day ahead. Even better, it may keep your teen from eating too much during the rest of the day.

If your teen resists high-fiber cereal or whole-wheat toast, suggest last night's leftovers. Even a piece of string cheese or a small handful of nuts and a piece of fruit can do the job.

Snack wisely

It can be tough to make healthy choices when school halls are lined with vending machines, but it's possible. Encourage your teen to replace even one bag of chips a day with a healthier grab-and-go option from home:

* Frozen grapes
* Oranges, strawberries or other fresh fruit
* Sliced red, orange or yellow peppers
* Cherry tomatoes
* Baby carrots
* Low-fat yogurt or pudding
* Pretzels
* Graham crackers
* String cheese

Watch portion sizes

When it comes to portions, size matters. Encourage your teen to scale back and stop eating when he or she is full. It might take just one slice of pizza or half the pasta on the plate to feel full — and there's no shame in sharing a meal, ordering a smaller portion or taking home leftovers.

Count liquid calories

The average 12-ounce can of soda has 150 calories and 10 teaspoons of sugar. The calories and sugar in fruit juice, specialty coffees and other drinks can add up quickly as well. Drinking water instead of soda and other sugary drinks may spare your teen hundreds of calories and a day's worth of sugar — or even more. For variety, suggest flavored water, seltzer water or unsalted club soda.

Allow occasional treats

Late-night pizza with friends or nachos at the mall don't need to derail your teen's healthy-eating plan. Suggest a breadstick and marinara sauce instead of garlic bread dripping in butter and cheese, or a shared snack rather than a full-size order. Let your teen know that he or she is in control — and an occasional indulgence is OK. A trend toward healthier habits is what really matters.

Make it a family affair

Rather than singling out your teen, adopt healthier habits as a family. After all, eating healthier foods and getting more exercise is good for everybody.

* Encourage the entire family to eat more fruits, veggies and whole grains. Be sure to set a good example yourself.
* Leave junk food at the grocery store. Healthy foods sometimes cost more, but it's an important investment.
* Try new recipes or healthier alternatives to family favorites.
* Banish food from the couch to curb mindless munching.
* Plan active family outings, such as evening walks or weekend visits to a local recreation center.

Be positive

Being overweight doesn't inevitably lead to a lifetime of low self-esteem. But your acceptance is critical. Listen to your teen's concerns. Comment on his or her efforts, skills and accomplishments. Make it clear that your love is unconditional — not dependent on weight loss. Help your teen learn healthy ways to express his or her feelings, such as writing in a journal.

If your teen is struggling with low self-esteem or isn't able to cope with his or her weight in a healthy manner, consider a support group, formal weight-control program or professional counseling. Additional support may give your teen the tools to counter social pressure, cultivate more positive self-esteem and take control of his or her weight. The benefits will last a lifetime.
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