Parents play a critical part in their teenager’s journey to lose weight, which means parents must be actively involved on an emotional and physical level to help their overweight teen be successful with weight loss.
This article offers numerous practical ways for parents to help their teen lose weight, including ways to avoid sabotaging their teen’s weight loss, how to be healthy role models, specific food alternatives to satiate a teen’s craving for salt, sugar or soda, and tips to help parents instill a sense of worthiness in their teen who might be suffering emotionally from being overweight.
The support of a parent or other parental figure is of “utmost importance” to a teen’s success for losing weight, said Allison Wells, a certified youth exercise specialist with the National Academy of Sports Medicine who taught nutrition and circuit training classes at the USC Teenage Obesity Research Clinic.
“Creating an environment where the child can openly discuss how they are feeling both physically and emotionally, having their parents on board with healthy food choices in the house, and encouraging physical activity as a family, are all imperative to supporting their teen,” Wells said.
The parents’ role is critical because everything at first comes from the family and home base that could positively influence a child, emphasized Dr. Annthea Fenwick, a certified personal trainer and certified exercise physiologist with the American College of Sports Medicine.
“A parent could make a profound impact on a teen based on how they handle the situation,” noted Dr. Fenwick, adding that a parent provides a positive role model for good behavior. “A parent can become a coach, not a sheriff, a good listener and motivator.”
It’s important for parents to support and encourage their teen through leading by example, added Ruth Pupo Garcia, a registered dietitian with certification training in weight management.
“Often, teens rely on parents for food,” Garcia said. “It can help if the parents eat healthy themselves and participate in the healthy habits.”
Parents can enable their teen to remain overweight by constantly monitoring their teen with weight loss, not allowing them to learn, and mentioning the teen’s weight daily, said Dr. Fenwick, who advises keeping the following in mind:
Don’t focus on the word fat – instead, focus on the teen’s positive attributes
Don’t wait until your teen becomes obese; have the talk with them sooner to address the problem
Don’t think it is all genetics. Statically, genetics play a very small role in obesity
Wells noted that oftentimes, parents get into the habit of rewarding their children for good behavior with food, and typically, these treats are high in sugar and/or empty calories.
Kids start associating junk food with achieving goals or “being good,” which creates a self-perpetuating cycle of unhealthy eating.
On the flip side of that coin, if a parent is constantly berating or nagging their child for being overweight, forbidding them to eat certain foods, or commenting on how much they are eating, that can backfire, and the teen may overeat in retaliation – whether consciously or subconsciously, Wells said.
“Being hyper-focused on a teen’s weight can create an unhealthy, obsessive body complex for them, and affect the parent-child relationship that becomes about much more than just the weight, but about the child’s self-worth,” Wells warned.
Garcia agreed it’s important for parents to avoid lecturing, pressuring or scolding their teens about their eating habits. Instead, parents should talk to them; ask how they feel about their weight, and how they can be supportive.
“The family can support their teens by participating instead of lecturing,” Garcia said. “For example, don’t buy foods that you know are a temptation for your child, like chips, candy or sweet drinks. Make it a point that as a parent, you would like to eat healthy, too, and are willing to make changes as well.”
For many overweight teens, a feeling of unworthiness can manifest on a deeper psychological level. Dr. Fenwick offers the following ways a parent can help their teen lose weight without making them feel unworthy:
Become a role model. Prepare and consume healthy foods, and teach teens how to make them.
Exercise and maintain a healthy weight yourself. Teens will follow and respect more the actions you demonstrate than your talks with them. Walk the talk. Actions speak louder than words.
Never use the word fat or any harmful names. Don’t make teens feel critical about their bodies. Instead, play up their positive attributes.
Wells gives the following advice:
Suggest activities that can be shared with the family. A weekend bike ride, hike, or other physical activity the teen is interested in.
Make the teen part of the meal preparation or cooking process. If the teen is helping to make their own meals, the parent has an opportunity to introduce healthy options, and slip in some simple nutrition advice. For example: “Let’s make a big stir fry for dinner. Pick out four vegetables you want to throw in there. You can have the leftovers for lunch tomorrow.”
Introduce measured portions of foods at mealtimes. That way, while eating out, teens are used to the visual cues from home to understand how much they really need to eat to be satisfied. For example, fill up half the plate with non-starchy vegetables, a quarter of the plate with protein, and the other quarter with complex carbohydrates.
Avoid mindless eating, which leads to overeating. Encourage a digital-distraction-free meal time. This means connecting with each other, savoring the food, and not just wolfing it down without tasting it.
In other recommendations, Garcia said to discuss how your teen feels about their weight. Let them know obesity is a condition and may not be entirely their fault. Changes such as healthy eating and more activity can help, but negative ideals do not work or motivate.
Teens who are overweight can suffer from self-imposed or societal negativity. Dr. Fenwick offers the following tips for parents that can potentially have a positive effect on their overweight teen’s emotional state:
- Don't criticize them about being fat
- Support their positive attributes
- Stress a positive body image
- Don't wait until your teen is obese to have a talk; start the dialogue when your teen starts to become overweight
Oftentimes, obesity can be a result of emotional eating, Wells noted, and this can lead to a self-perpetuating cycle: Child is overweight, child gets bullied, child eats to numb themselves from the pain of being bullied, child gains more weight.
“Making sure your teen has someone to talk to, outside of a nuclear family member, honestly and openly about any emotional issues, can be very helpful,” advised Wells, adding that school counselors, therapists, or mentors who can have a more objective perspective, and aren’t personally affected by or connected to whatever issues the teen is going through, are all good options for emotional sounding boards.
“Not focusing on the teen’s weight, but instead on their other qualities, is a good way to build confidence and self-worth,” Wells added. “Instead of superficial comments, try remarking on their intelligence, creativity, willfulness, compassion.”
According to Dr. Fenwick, there are several ways a parent can take a physically active role in helping their teen lose weight, such as planning family outings where physical activities are encouraged, like miniature golfing.
“Every weekend…my family always went for a hike,” Dr. Fenwick recalled. “We would pack a healthy lunch and spend the day exploring together. The parent should be a role model with physical activity.”
In other advice, Wells offered the following tips:
Make physical activities about bonding, not about weight loss, such as taking after-dinner walks together. Suggest to your teen, “the weather is so nice, and it will give us a chance to catch up.”
Choose physical activities your teen will enjoy. Some teens may gravitate toward creative dance, or individual sports, such as skating, biking, skiing or running. Additionally, “encourage regular participation in whatever physical activity your teen likes.”
Hire a coach or personal trainer. One-on-one coaching or personal training is a great way for the teen to have individual attention, get some exercise, and connect with a mentor.
Teach your teen appropriate portion sizes for various food groups and their plate as a whole. This is a tangible and easy way to start a healthy habit.
Avoid rewarding your teen with food. Instead of a food reward for things like good grades or good behavior, offer teens an active experience, such as a trip to the theme park, swimming pool, bowling alley or ice skating rink.
Garcia agrees that encouraging teens to engage in activities they enjoy can keep them active, however, “if they don't like exercise, don't worry. Nutrition changes alone can help with weight control. Try small changes instead of many changes at once that can be overwhelming.”
Many overweight teens with working parents spend time on their own without supervision, which can lead to making poor food choices. Dr. Fenwick offers the following tips for parents that can help promote healthier food selections when a teen is home alone:
Have healthy pre-cut snacks readily available, such as carrots, celery, apples or orange slices. Store these healthy snacks in small, ready-to-grab containers at eye level.
Don’t stock the house with processed junk food. If you don't buy it, it will be less likely for teens to consume these unhealthy foods at home.
Wells advised taking your teen on a supermarket tour and showing them foods that are part of a healthy diet. This can help them understand what they need to eat to keep their weight down, especially when they’re home alone making their own food choices.
Wells agreed that keeping the house stocked with lots of fresh foods is a good start and that pre-cut fruits and vegetables give teens healthier options than empty calories.
Another effective way to ensure healthy choices are made is to prepare meals at the beginning of the week consisting of foods like roasted sweet potatoes, brown rice, grilled chicken, hard-boiled eggs, string cheese, or pre-cut veggies with hummus.
Snack foods like almonds can also be pre-portioned to help a teen avoid overeating. “Try putting a ¼-cup measuring cup in the bag of almonds, or fill containers with portioned crackers according to the serving size on the nutrition facts,” Wells advised.
For parents of overweight teens who crave sugar, Dr. Fenwick recommends stocking up with the following foods which are much healthier alternatives:
- Low-fat and/or low-sugar yogurt
- Seasonal fruit
- Frozen yogurt or frozen fruit
- Sweet-substitute treats, such as black bean brownies, or avocado and blueberry popsicles
If a teen has a serious sweet tooth, their taste buds probably have a higher tolerance for really sweet foods, Wells said, and it may take an adjustment period for them to retrain their brains to not crave that processed sugar.
“While fruit may seem like a lame alternative to candy, it can certainly squelch a sugar craving, and it has higher fiber and water content, which will help to fill up your teen so they won’t be craving more sugar/snacks,” explained Wells, who offered the following lower-sugar options for overweight teens:
- Greek yogurt with fruit (add in your own fruit, as opposed to buying the yogurt with fruit already in it) and a drizzle of honey
- Homemade trail mix (nuts and seeds, shredded coconut and dried fruit, portioned into 1/3 cup servings)
- Dark chocolate (72% cacao or more, portioned into 1-inch square pieces)
- Mini ice cream sandwiches or no-sugar-added fruit popsicles (look for brands with all-natural ingredients and 15 grams of sugar or less)
- Slice of toast with nut butter and honey
- Bowl of grapes, cherries, berries, melon
Wells also has an after-school food blog that features her energy balls and other healthy food recommendations that can help overweight teens with cravings.
Sugar-free popsicles are also a great option for overweight teens who crave sweets, said Garcia, adding that another satiating snack is a healthy blended smoothie. This can be made with unsweetened cocoa powder, a low-calorie sweetener like monk fruit, almond milk, and ice.
For overweight teens who crave salt, Dr. Fenwick offers the following healthier alternatives that can help satiate this desire:
- 1/4 cup of mixed nuts
- Sliced vegetables with hummus
- Dill pickles
- Low-fat string cheese
- Celery with low-fat cream cheese
When anyone is craving salty foods, this craving could have a direct correlation to hydration, Wells noted.
Often times, when our body is dehydrated, our brain gets a mixed signal thinking we’re hungry, and usually for salty snacks. When we start eating these salty snacks, we become more dehydrated, thus craving more salt, which can lead to overeating empty calories.
Therefore, it’s important to make sure your teen is drinking enough water – soda and caffeinated beverages don’t count – and eating foods with high water content, such as berries, melon, cucumber, lettuce, grapes or celery.
When your teen really wants that salty snack, Wells recommends the following:
- Popcorn (portioned according to the serving size on the package)
- Homemade trail mix
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Turkey and cheese on a cracker (or skewered on a toothpick)
- Almond butter (or preferred nut butter) on celery, apple slices, or crackers, with a drizzle of honey
- Veggies and whole-grain crackers with hummus or salsa
Almonds, such as in 100-calorie packs which contain about 15 to 20 almonds, and low-fat baked chips can also help satiate a teen’s craving for salt, Garcia added. “Make sure that you purchase small bags and aim for 100 to 150 calorie snacks.”
Soda, both regular and diet, should be avoided as much as possible, Wells advised, adding that it doesn’t take long for anyone to become addicted to soda, “and it can be a difficult habit to kick.”
Wells recommends introducing sparkling water with fruit essence – like LaCroix – to your teen, and make it into a spritzer. Combine the sparkling water with a ¼ cup of their favorite juice, which will dilute the juice, “but still offer that satisfying effervescent bubble and a hint of sweetness.”
Dr. Fenwick suggests home-brew iced tea with lemon, adding that many teens are used to drinking a cold beverage from the store. Therefore, keeping healthy drinks in the refrigerator to provide this cold sensation will make them more likely to consume it.
Sugar-free drinks that have zero calories can also be a great option, Garcia said. However, in some studies, it is suggested that excessive intake of sugar-free beverages can increase appetite in some people.
“Water is the best option with occasional sugar-free, zero-calorie beverages, such as Vitamin Water Zero,” said Garcia, who also recommends asking your teen if they’d like to participate in making infused water with lemon or strawberries.
Being a teenager is an emotional time, regardless of one’s weight, said Wells, adding that bodies are changing constantly, peers can be critical and even downright mean, and hormones can cause emotional swings on a daily – if not hourly – basis.
Supporting your teen with words of encouragement like “this too shall pass,” and emphasizing that this is just a moment in their lives, and high school is not the end-all and be-all, can help get your teen over a rough patch, Wells advised.
“Sometimes, all a person needs to know is that they are not alone, they are loved, and everything is going to be alright.”
Encouraging a healthy, active lifestyle that the whole family participates in is the best model for any child, especially if the child is depressed, Wells added. “Physical activity increases serotonin and releases endorphins. So, the more you move, the happier you’ll feel.”
In other advice, Garcia said parents can tell their teen that being overweight does not mean they are lazy or unattractive, “but that being at a healthier weight can make life more enjoyable, increase their self-esteem, and decrease risk for chronic diseases.”
There are a few reasons a child or teenager may be overweight, Wells said. There can be a genetic predisposition to obesity – such as thyroid issues or body type – or a lack of education about how to eat healthfully, and the impact of physical activity on weight and health.
There is also a psychological component. “Sometimes it’s not just calories in versus calories out. Sometimes there’s a deeper emotional or physical cause of weight gain that needs to be addressed,” Wells noted.
Therefore, modeling healthy choices at home, in a non-obsessive way, and offering a safe environment to discuss feelings, or counseling option to work through emotional issues, are all important components in supporting your teen’s weight loss journey, Wells said.
Dr. Fenwick advises making small changes at first to help with lifestyle choices. For example, don’t cut out all dessert; rather, slowly reduce the size. Make sure your teen is sleeping eight hours a night, not skipping breakfast, and engaging in physical activity.
“Be a role model for your teen and your family – exercise and keep your weight at healthy levels,” Dr. Fenwick added. “Don't micromanage your teen. For example, making a comment on every bite they take. Let them feel some control in taking positive steps.”
If you or your teen is overweight, “you are not alone,” said Garcia, adding that an estimated 93 million Americans are affected by obesity, and that number is predicted to climb to 120 million within the next five years.
“Unfortunately, obesity is a growing health problem, exacerbated by access to unhealthy processed foods in conjunction with less physical activity,” Garcia said.
“However, changes in food habits can make a great improvement – education and consistency is key. Weight loss also takes time and effort, and perfection is not necessary. Find role models that boost confidence and self-esteem – and as a parent, make some healthy changes yourself.”
» For Further Reading:
- A Beginner’s Guide to Losing Weight and Getting in Shape
- How to Eat Healthy on a Tight Budget: Simple Money-Saving Tips
- Walking for Exercise: Why 30 Minutes a Day Can Transform Your Health