When it comes to childhood obesity, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that children ages 5 and under are less obese than they were in 1999. The bad news is that teen obesity is up 28% since 1999 and still rising.
Teen Obesity Risk Factors
Rising rates of adolescent obesity are bad news for health because, according to the CDC, obese teens struggle more with obesity risk factors:
- High blood pressure and high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease
- Impaired glucose tolerance, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes
- Breathing problems, such as asthma and sleep apnea
- Joint problems
- Fatty liver disease, gallstones, and reflux
- Anxiety and depression
- Low self-esteem and social problems such as bullying and stigma
- Risk of adult obesity, which is associated with increased risk of a number of serious health conditions including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.
Goodbye to Fat Shaming
While being very overweight is unhealthy, it has also become more “normal”. This means teens are less able to recognize that they are at an unhealthy weight. For example, only one in three overweight girls correctly perceives her weight status now, vs four out of five in the late 1980’s (Lui et al. 2015, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey).
New norms reflect more body acceptance of appearance at any weight. We are happy to see people celebrated for their strength, athleticism, and curves: being “skinny” is not the ideal it once was. Anything that lessens stigma about obesity is good because weight is an emotional topic. It’s time to end “fat shaming”. Body acceptance is a welcome theme of many popular social media campaigns. We need to focus on acceptance as part of a more holistic approach to health. Especially for people who are struggling with unhealthy weights, acceptance is often the first step in moving forward and getting healthier.
Losing Weight Too Fast is Dangerous
People who focus on weight loss over health can damage themselves if they lose weight quickly. When it comes to kids and teens, losing weight the wrong way can be downright dangerous: overweight children who accelerate weight loss can have the same cardiac symptoms and damage as teens with anorexia—it’s just harder to catch. In one study, 40% of teens who were admitted to an eating disorder clinic had a prior problem with obesity or overweight, where the weight loss got “out of control”, according to Dr. Neville Golden of Stanford.
New Strategies Are Emerging
Over the next few months, the Ayogo blog will discuss teen health, and emerging strategies for adolescent weight management. We’ve partnered with experts at the Childhood Obesity Foundation to explore how technology, behavior change and social support can make a difference.
We will share our research into what helps and what hinders teens. We’ll provide insight into how parents of teens at unhealthy weights and their clinicians can help teens reach healthy weights. We’ll look at the emotional side of weight loss, and how technology, including social games and apps can play an important role in supporting change in adolescent obesity.
Four Strategies That Can Improve Teen Health and Lessen Obesity
1. Focus on the whole person and healthy accomplishment
- Achieving healthy portion control, regular exercise, and good nutrition are more important to health and well-being than losing weight.
- Celebrate personal development because it has nothing to do with appearance. For example, it’s great to congratulate teens on reaching a new level in Tae Kwon Do, getting a job. Focus on being awesome.
2. Eat regular meals as a family, ideally at home
- Parents mustn’t abdicate their place at the table to their kids’ friends. Reclaim most dinners as family time.
- Eating at home makes it easier to prepare healthy meals and to eliminate sugary drinks.
- Be relaxed and positive about preparing healthy portion sizes. If you have more than the required number of portions, pack the extra away for lunches.
3. Avoid talking about weight
- Parents play an important role in shaping their kids’ identities. Turns out, when we grow up, our body dissatisfaction is directly related to the extent that we remember comments our parents made about our weight (Wansink et al, 2016). So mom and dad, talk about other things.
- Never tease teens about their weight or size.
- Be a positive communication role model. Stop making self-deprecating comments about your own weight—no saying “I’m fat!”
- Resist complimenting others on losing weight. Instead of saying “You look great, you’ve lost weight!”, try “It’s great to see you! What have you been up to?”
4. Avoid dieting
- Super-low calorie restriction can lead your base metabolic rate to drop. This means your body uses calories more efficiently. An efficient metabolic rate could keep you alive longer if you ran out of food. Teens may inherit genes that are extra good at this, and we call these “thrifty” genes. You can “turn them on” with low-calorie diets. This means that when you resume a normal diet after extended dieting, you may gain weight faster than before. Dieting long and hard means your body fights to regain the weight.
- While calorie counting can be an effective way to understand your overall intake and learn about correct portion size, calories are only part of the story. Even at unhealthy weights, it’s healthier to focus on nutritious, less “calorie dense” foods. Remember Michael Pollan’s adage: “eat food, not too much, mostly plants”.