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Combatting Teen Obesity

How To Help Your Child Maintain Effective Weight Control

Twenty-five percent of U.S. children are overweight or at risk for becoming overweight, and that number is increasing rapidly, according to The National Institutes of Health. And kids often aren't losing their excess weight by adolescence.

"Teenage obesity is complex in that both the potential physical and psychosocial consequences of obesity at this age need to be taken into account," says Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Chair of the Public Health Nutrition Program, School of Public Health, University of Minnesota.

What's Causing the Epidemic of Obesity?

How did this overweight epidemic start and how can parents fight it? Experts blame the rise in obesity on unhealthy food choices and increasingly sedentary lifestyles. A study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion found that students decreased their consumption of breakfast, fruits, vegetables and milk as they moved from elementary to junior high and middle school. Between the third to the eighth grades, fruit consumption fell by 41 percent and vegetable consumption dropped by 25 percent. Soft drink consumption tripled, often at the expense of healthier alternatives, such as milk and fruit juice.

What Kind of School Programs Will Help Teens?

Neumark-Sztainer champions the need for effective weight control programs aimed at the prevention of obesity in children. She recently divided teens into several focus groups, asking hard questions such as: If you were designing a weight control program aimed at healthy weight control, healthy eating and increased exercise, what would you do? What activities? When? Where? She also asked if programs should include all kids or only overweight kids.

Teens across the board wanted fun, interactive activities -- such as in-line skating, aerobics and yoga -- within a supportive environment. They asked for physical fitness facilities and programs to be available both during and after school hours and requested appealing, healthy foods. The teenagers recommended focusing on a healthy lifestyle instead of specific weight issues and offering programs to all students, regardless of weight, to avoid stigmatizing those with a problem. But some students did express concern over differences in athletic ability and perceived embarrassment between overweight and normal-weight teens.

"The focus group data will help us in planning programs that meet the needs of teenagers with weight concerns," says Neumark-Sztainer. Indeed, many of the above suggestions were incorporated into the "New Moves" program, currently undergoing a pilot test in Minneapolis. "New Moves" aims to help overweight girls function in a society that values thinness, to avoid unhealthy weight control practices and to maintain healthy eating and exercise habits. Researchers have implemented the program for overweight girls only, and for girls of mixed weights to assess the advantages and disadvantages of both programs.

Eat Smart, But How?

"The development of permanent lifestyle changes is the main goal of pediatric weight management programs, not necessarily weight loss," says Deborah Bonnell, clinical nutritionist at Children's Hospital in Birmingham, Ala. "Adult weight management programs may be inappropriate for children, given their need for growth and development."

Bonnell recommends that families stick to three meals and two or three snacks per day with age-appropriate serving sizes of food. Meals should consist of three to four food servings and snacks should be smaller portions of one or two servings. "No food is out of the question; it depends on how often and how much you consume a high-fat, high-sugary food. Moderation is the key," she says.

Bonnell offers several suggestions for teen-friendly snacks:

  • Non-starchy vegetables such as carrots, celery and broccoli dipped in fat-free salad dressings
  • Sugar-free gelatin prepared with canned mixed fruit in its own juice
  • Half of a bagel with fat-free or light cream cheese or jelly
  • Baked chips with fat-free dip
  • Bagel pizza made with reduced-fat shredded cheeses and turkey pepperoni

Fight For Fitness at Home and In Schools

There are several ways parents can help teens slim down. Crystel Riggs of Clemson, South Carolina has taught her overweight daughter about fat grams, calories and serving sizes, and she helps her daughter maintain a healthy diet. Roiniotis encourages her 11-year-old to exercise and eat healthy foods, resulting in weight loss by munching on carrots with low-calorie dressing, drinking peach iced-tea and participating in camp sports.

The changes shouldn't only happen in the home; parents can help fight childhood obesity by encouraging schools to offer a variety of physical activities, healthy food choices and weight intervention programs such as "New Moves." Experts suggest parents lobby the local Parent-Teacher Association or pick up the phone and ask what the school is doing to help overweight kids. Also, they say, check with local health care organizations to find healthy lifestyle programs tailored to children.

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