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Healthy Weight Gain For Teens

Types Of Issues Teens Face When They Are too thin and underweight

In our local high school's football program, the players are listed with their grade, height and weight. I scanned through the list. My son seemed to be the average height among the players – 5 feet, 10 inches – but at 130 pounds, the only kids who weighed less were at least five inches shorter.

"You need to get another 30, 40 pounds on him," the football coaches told us repeatedly. Easier said than done. He spent a lot of time in the weight room and drank protein shakes made with whole fat milk and ice cream. He grew three or four more inches, but only gained five more pounds. He worries that he'll never be big enough to successfully play the sport he loves.

The Pitfalls

Even in these days when most conversations about teenagers and weight are about obesity, many young people have the opposite struggle – they are extremely thin and would like to gain weight. To many of these kids, being too thin is a stigma and targets them for cruel teasing. "I didn't want to be too thin [as a teen]," says Mary Hake of Crooked River Ranch, Oregon. "I was called bean pole and Olive Oyl. I was sensitive and easily upset, so the boys thought it was fun to pick on me."

Lisa Marie Metzler of McBain, Mich., says her son has also been the subject of teasing because of his slender frame. Friends and relatives urge him to put more meat on his bones. "Some think that teasing overweight people is bad, but if you're thin, it hurts to have people say negative things, as well," she says.

Metzler's son followed a regimen similar to my son's – protein shakes and weight training – with the same results. "He wanted results to be immediate, but I also think he learned that he wasn't going to change his body type that significantly without overhauling his whole lifestyle," she says.

Unfortunately, for a growing number of kids, "overhauling their lifestyle" means using steroids, which are both dangerous and illegal, or steroid-like substances like creatine, which can be found in stores that sell nutrition supplements. Just because they are legal doesn't mean they are safe!

H Is for Healthy

Instead of using artificial means to help a child gain weight, parents should encourage their teen to follow a healthy plan. To begin a healthy weight gain plan, teenagers and parents should discuss why the teen wants to gain weight. It should be the teen's decision, rather than a decision pushed on him or her by coaches, friends or even parents. The teen should also meet with his or her doctor, who is familiar with the teen's growth pattern and overall health.

"Everybody is individual in their growth years," says Joseph Benedetto, a nutritional consultant and instructor in the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, N.C. It is important for teens to recognize that their ability to gain weight depends on their body structure and metabolism, and that teens will grow at different rates. Because of this individuality, Benedetto recommends that teens and their parents make an appointment with a registered dietician who will do a complete profile on the teen. At that point, a diet can be compiled that is unique to the person based on their body and their need.

If the teen does not have the opportunity to meet with a dietician, he or she can still make dietary changes. Candace Ayars, an associate investigator and childhood nutrition expert with Geisinger Health System, advocates a high-calorie, nutritionally-balanced diet. She suggests a balance of 40 percent protein, 35 percent carbohydrates and 25 percent fat for a youth looking to increase weight. However, she says to exercise caution against eating too much protein, as that can stress the kidneys. In addition, "You never want to want to cut a growing child's diet to below 25 percent fat," she says.

According to Ayars, an active boy who wants to gain weight should strive for 3,500 to 3,800 good calories a day, emphasizing the need for good, rather than empty, calories. Very active girls should eat 2,500 to 3,000 calories a day. Good calories, both Ayars and Benedetto agree, include lean meats, egg whites, fish, whole grains, fruits, vegetables and healthy fats. The use of protein shakes should be strictly monitored by parents.

S Is for Strong

Along with a healthy, high-calorie diet, another way to gain weight is with strength training. No one should attempt a strength-training regimen without guidance. That guidance could come from coaches or strength trainers through the school or sports teams or a gym. They should work out with some adult supervision nearby; finding a "lifting buddy" is ideal. Abs and back muscles can be worked on daily, but other muscles should be given 48 hours of rest between workouts.

Muscle weighs more than fat, so as a teen becomes more muscular, he or she will see weight gain on the scale – even though they may not see it in the mirror. However, boys will find they are stronger, and continued training will make them look larger. For girls, strength training will tone their bodies and give their thin frames a well-defined look.

Parents should always provide a positive attitude about their teen's body image, as well as provide an example of a healthy lifestyle. They also need to help their teen be realistic. Some kids – like my son – will struggle to gain five pounds because of their genetic make up. "We need to teach teens to accept their bodies and not be so dissatisfied," says Ayars.

My son's weight gain is slow, but with his regular workouts in the weight room and his new diet focusing on good calories, he's never been healthier. And that, he thinks, is the most important thing.

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