So you’ve been to see your primary care provider, as we discussed in Part 1, and your teen has been medically cleared. Now you are looking at the challenge of fitting activity into their schedule, and changing their eating habits. Where to start?
Start with yourself. Or rather, start with the whole family. If your whole family (except for your teen) gets 5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily, engages in physical activity 6 days a week, avoids soda and sugary beverages, and focuses on health and activity instead of numbers on the scale… Congratulations! My hat is off to you. For the rest of us, there is room for improvement!
Trying to encourage your teen to change their unhealthy behaviors while you hang on to yours isn’t going to work very well. It’s like the smoker who tells their teen not to smoke; your actions ring louder than your words.
You may feel that your teen has fewer barriers to a healthy lifestyle than you do: they don’t work, they don’t raise children, they don’t pay the bills and they may not even contribute towards cleaning the house. However, to your teen, your life might seem rosy- no homework, your own car, and you get to do whatever you want, when you want to. (Teens don’t always see adulthood in an accurate light.)
So, what would you like to see your teen do? Eat more vegetables? Get more exercise? Watch less TV? These are all good goals, but make sure you’re meeting them yourself first. The vision of a smiling family playing touch football on a Saturday afternoon may not be realistic for you for many reasons, but consider inviting your teen on a walk, exploring a local gym or YMCA, or getting some weights to use at home. Get some fresh produce to keep in the house and make sure you enjoy it often.
You may be tempted to go on a restrictive diet and invite your teen to join you. Don’t. All the research we have shows that restrictive diets, including low-calorie, low-carb, meal replacement shakes, and the rest, are completely ineffective in teenagers. (They don’t work that well for adults, either.) Even if your teen is excited about going on the latest diet, dissuade them.
A problem with diets is that they make people feel deprived sooner or later. Our bodies begin clamoring for more or different food, softly at first, but it can become deafening. Teenage bodies, still growing and developing, have an even louder “voice” than adult bodies. If your teen needs to lose weight it needs to be slowly, safely, and without deprivation.
Diets can also slow your metabolism down, as your body adjusts for getting less food by burning fewer calories throughout the day. Many of the teens we see in our clinic for overweight adolescents really don’t eat that much at all- and their metabolism has adjusted for that. Your teen should be eating no less often than every 3 hours.
Another important part of a diet for adolescents is no “forbidden foods.” That includes Twinkies, potato chips, and weird gummy blue candies. Think of how teens live their lives, and how tempting anything forbidden can seem. This goes for food, too. It’s not a bad idea to keep these foods out of your cupboards- you buy the food, after all- but neither should you blink an eye if your teen buys and eats some sugar-crusted pastry-substitute at the 7-11. You can feel secure that there is healthy food at home for their next snack attack.