Being a teenager in today’s society is not easy. Faced with peer pressure and unrealistic expectations perpetuated through TV and magazines, teens are forced to deal with complex, uncomfortable situations daily, including a subject many would rather not discuss: weight.
“Looking at national data sources, like the CDC, that are sampling large portions of people in the U.S., we’re seeing more and more individuals in the obese or morbidly obese category,” says Yolanda N. Evans, MD, with the adolescent medicine division of Seattle Children’s Hospital. “It’s a really important issue to talk about because more and more kids are being affected.”
However, Evans says the way we talk about the obesity epidemic could be making things worse – especially for teens.
The other side of our obsession with weight
Evans says the media’s focus on weight and people’s bodies has increased the risk for restrictive eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia. Rather than focusing on healthy behaviors, our society too often promotes a “thin is better” mindset. Evans says it’s a problem that needs to be addressed and discussed, particularly with children and teens.
“Focusing on being thin rather than on being healthy isn’t an appropriate message, especially when these types of messages are coming straight out of Hollywood,” Evans says. She cites criticism of Jennifer Lawrence, The Hunger Games’ starlet, as an example: Jennifer Lawrence ‘Considered a Fat Actress.’
“Teens reading about Hollywood’s ‘It’ girl being overweight is enough to make anyone – even the most confident teen – a little self-conscious,” Evans says. “This, compounded with messages from the movement to end obesity, has put dangerous expectations in teens’ minds.”
Evans works with teens every day and says she is seeing more teens who believe they are overweight, even when they’re at a healthy weight. She’s also seeing teens set unrealistic weight loss goals for themselves. Evans says the added pressure on teens to look a certain way has been contributing to drastic attempts to lose weight, including anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.
Although obesity has gained national attention because of its epidemic status, restrictive eating disorders can be just as dangerous to teens. A recent study estimates that about a half million teens – boys and girls – in the U.S. have some form of an eating disorder.
Evans says it’s important to remember that there are different healthy weight parameters for adults and teens, who have different energy needs. Parents can help their teens by pointing out unrealistic standards and emphasizing being healthy, rather than a certain size.
“Just because you are not super thin doesn’t mean you’re unhealthy, and just because you’re thin doesn’t mean you’re healthy,” says Evans.
Evans says messaging for teens dealing with obesity and restrictive eating should be similar – it’s all about balance. Eat a variety of foods, put energy into your body every three hours and exercise.
9 tips for maintaining a healthy lifestyle
“Teens should be reminded that people come in all shapes and sizes,” says Evans. Instead of talking about weight, parents can encourage healthy habits that can be incorporated throughout life.
- Don’t think about calories. Rather than calorie counting, Evans prefers teens to think about being as “fit and healthy as possible for me.”
- Minimize sugary drinks. Instead of drinking soda, juice or opting for a sugary energy drink, drink water or milk instead.
- Be active. Limit your screen time to two hours a day – that includes all screens. Put down your cell phone, step away from the computer and turn off the TV. Get outside instead.
- Enjoy exercise. Being active doesn’t have to be a chore. Pick activities that you enjoy. Take a hike with your family or take your dog for a walk after school – if you enjoy working out you’ll be much more likely to stick with it.
- Eat meals with the family. Research shows families that eat together have a healthier BMI.
- Eat breakfast. Have breakfast everyday, even if it’s just yogurt on the go, says Evans.
- Stop when you’re full. Don’t supersize your portions and stop if you’ve had enough.
- Incorporate family. Family can be a great support system. It’s really hard for kids and teens to do things on their own. They aren’t going out and buying the food in the pantry. It’s going to be hard to make changes if no one else in the household is doing it as well.
- Snacking is okay. Put energy into your body every three hours – that means food.
Evans’ advice to teens and parents is simple: move and be active while also eating enough food. Finding balance is vital to a healthy lifestyle. Instead of worrying about weight, ask yourself these three questions:
- Do I have the energy to do what I want to do?
- Has my doctor told me I’m okay – blood pressure checks out, heart is okay?
- Do I feel good about myself?
Remember, diets are typically not healthy and restrictive eating is not a way to lead a healthy lifestyle. Find healthy habits that fit into your lifestyle and stick to them!