Many parents start to worry when they see their teen gaining weight. From rapid and unexpected weight gain to a slow and gradual filling out, there’s a lot going on during the teen years.
I’ve seen it over and over in my pediatric nutrition practice: teenage weight gain. Parents worry, but it’s not always something to be concerned about.
But, still, parents wonder if there’s something they should do about it.
If they should somehow intervene and stop it.
Many parents want to know how to handle teen weight gain without causing more problems, such as disordered eating or an eating disorder.
Learn about teenage weight gain and what you can do to help (without harming your relationship with your teen) in this article.
In this article you’ll learn:
- What is considered normal weight in teens
- The common causes of too much weight gain
- Ways to help the teen who is putting on too much weight
Is Teenage Weight Gain Normal?
Yes, for many teens, weight gain will be a normal part of development.
It is expected that all teens will experience preteen weight gain, and the total amount of weight gained across the span of the teenage growth spurt is significant.
In other words, that awkward, pudgy appearance many teens go through is a completely normal part of puberty.
Adolescent girls can gain fifteen pounds or so during puberty, while boys gain upwards of thirty pounds during this time.
[Read: When Do Girls Stop Growing?]
What is an Average Teen Weight?
The growth charts give you a sense of how your teenager is growing, and you can easily check it at your child’s next checkup.
Although these growth charts have a median, or “average” weight for each age, using this as a marker to check your child’s weight can be problematic.
Each child grows to his or her own potential.
The best way to assess whether weight is becoming a problem is to look at your child’s growth pattern over time. Is she growing along the same channel as usual?
If so, there’s nothing to worry about.
Is he jumping up on the charts into a higher percentile channel? Then there may be excess weight gain that could be worrisome. (Keep reading!)
What Causes Rapid Teen Weight Gain?
Rapid weight gain can be caused by several things: a disturbance in hormonal activity of the thyroid, for example, can lead to fast weight gain.
However, in many cases, rapid weight gain is a sign that extra calories, eating and activity is getting off track.
As a parent, there’s a fine line to walk when your teen, who is fairly independent with eating, starts to show signs of gaining too much weight.
Should you do something?
Or should you do nothing at all?
First, you need to understand what may be causing your teen to gain extra weight.
How Teens Gain Weight
According to Robert Malina, a researcher on childhood growth, adolescents gain weight and height in a predictable pattern. Height growth occurs first, followed by weight gain.
I like to call this pattern of growing “stretching out, then filling out.”
(This is different from childhood growth where pudginess often happens before increases in height.)
In teen girls, peak height growth occurs between ages 11-13 years. In boys, the peak height gain happens between 13 and 15 years, on average.
The weight gain from lean tissue (read: muscle and bone) during this time is about 15 pounds for girls and twice that for boys (~30#).
Girls gain about 15# of lean tissue (muscle and bone) during adolescence while boys gain about 30# during this period.
Girls gain more fat (~6#) on average than boys (~3#).
[Read: When Do Boys Stop Growing?]
Given these “norms,” and the typical signs of the growth spurt that go along with it, you can begin to see that an important physical transformation happens for teens.
A 15-30# weight gain in a couple of years can be shocking, especially if you’re used to looking at a lean child, but it is normal.
(Even if your teen’s weight gain is beyond these “norms,” it can still be normal for him or her, depending on the historical growth pattern. Remember: Take a look at the growth charts.)
What may not be normal is large meals and extra calories, both of which can cause unwanted and unhealthy weight gain.
Another contributor: Lack of regular exercise. When teens aren’t active, it can promote an imbalance of energy. Meaning, energy consumed is greater than energy burned.
Read: How to Be a Fit Kid
What’s Behind Weight Gain?
In 2012, 21% of teens aged 12-19 were classified as “obese,” a term that simply indicates that an individual is carrying too much body fat, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
If your teen is gaining too much weight, you’ll want to look at the bigger picture.
Common Reasons for Weight Gain in Teenagers
The increased independence associated with adolescence can support more eating. For example, a driver’s license can lead to more drive thru visits and dining out. Translated: extra calories.
2. Reduced Physical Activity
Teens may not get daily activity if they don’t play a sport. School-based physical education is on the decline for teens and this can impact their metabolism and daily energy expenditure (also known as daily calorie burn).
3. Food Choices
Food choices may not be rooted in wholesome, nutritious foods. Fast food, junk food, processed foods, candy, and other unhealthy choices may be the norm rather than the rarity.
All these foods can contribute to a high calorie diet.
4. Bad Eating Habits
Eating habits can also play a role. Late night snacking, skipping breakfast and social eating can disrupt appetite regulation and add extra calories to the overall diet.
All told, there are many reasons that teenagers may experience unwanted weight gain.
How to Handle it When a Teenager is Putting on Weight
Obviously, the first thing you want to do is assess whether your teen is going through her normal stage of growth and development.
The easiest and most accurate way to do this, a mentioned above, is to take a look at her growth chart.
If weight and height seem to be progressing along a normal path, then you’ve got nothing to worry about (and nothing to say).
If there is a clear bump up in your teen’s weight curve, indicating sudden or excess weight gain, I still believe you should say nothing about it to your teen.
Because calling out weight gain can be very disturbing and disruptive to her developing self-esteem and body satisfaction.
Body dissatisfaction has been highlighted as a risk factor for dieting and other dangerous, weight-reducing efforts.
It’s also may be a contributor to the development of an eating disorder.
What You Say Can Help or Harm
If you have concerns about your teen’s weight gain, tread lightly, particularly with what you say to him or her.
Starting on a tirade of what’s healthy to eat and what’s not, or extolling the virtues of exercise will likely be received as hurtful commentary.
Nagging your teen to exercise, or commenting on her appearance may do more harm than good. It is unlikely to motivate her to eat better or exercise more.
In fact, it can make eating worse and turn your teen off from exercising!
Many teens will be aware of their changing body. They may be secretly unhappy or self-conscious about their weight or appearance.
You may hear questions like, “Do you think I’m fat?”
Don’t panic if this happens. Many teens are simply looking for your guidance and reassurance.
Weight Loss in Teens: Should Teenagers Diet?
Weight loss diets aren’t a good idea. But it’s normal to wonder and think about this. We have a culture of dieting, and our teens are experiencing it, too.
As mentioned, weight loss diets increase the risk for disordered eating and eating disorders. At a minimum, they can disturb a healthy relationship with food.
You can, however, help your teen move toward healthy eating patterns and lifestyle choices.
When Your Teen Isn’t Concerned about Weight
Your teen may not be as concerned about her weight as you are, nor be receptive to your lectures about long-term health.
An appointment with a dietitian or other health care provider, if not inspired by your teen, may be unsuccessful. It could even be damaging.
Some teens have been known to take things into their own hands using quick weight loss schemes such as dieting, skipping meals, or over-exercising.
How to Help Teens from Gaining Too Much Weight
Most parents can’t stand to watch their teen overeat, or sit around and be lazy. They want to do something about it!
This often turns into nagging, inspirational discussions, or offers of help.
As mentioned above, these direct interventions often fall flat with teens.
The good news, though, is that there are plenty of things you can do to help your teen without harming her.
Here are four positive ways to encourage healthy eating and weight:
#1: Create a Healthy Food Environment
You are the nutritional gate keeper in your home. In other words, you allow food in. You choose it, purchase it, and stock it.
While you can’t do much about your teen’s eating patterns outside of your home, you can keep your homestead healthy.
Clean up your kitchen pantry and refrigerator and make sure you’ve got plenty of healthy snacks around.
Because teens are growing rapidly, they have a voracious appetite and will often eat what’s available to them.
This is good news and it can be bad news.
Stock and make available nutritious foods — have them front and center.
Nix the unhealthy, convenient snack foods. Instead, stock up on healthy snacks such as yogurt, cut up fruit, vegetables, whole grain cereals and breads, nuts, seeds, popcorn and more.
Stick with regularly timed meals and snacks, so overeating due to hunger isn’t likely to happen.
#2: Be a Good Role Model
Show your teen what it means to eat healthy and exercise. Lead by example, not by talking about the virtues of being healthy.
Remember, actions speak louder than words. Be what you want your teen to be: a healthy eater, a regular exerciser and a good sleeper.
I know from my own experience as a mom of teens, what my teens see me doing day in and day out sets the bar for how they will conduct their daily lives.
#3: Keep the Lines of Communication Open
Be non-judgmental and open to discussing your teen’s body and weight concerns.
Your teen may tell you that he is frustrated with his lack of muscle, or the appearance of his belly, or that he is uncomfortable in his clothing.
That’s your lead in for a productive conversation. Your intention should be to help: “Is there something I can do to help with that?” is a good response to these concerns.
Just being available to listen without unsolicited suggestions can work wonders.
#4: Invite Your Teen to Join You
Often, teens are leading an independent life, hanging out with friends, studying on their own, and hardly around the house.
When you can, invite your teen to go for a walk, to a movie, to the grocery store, to a local event, or to the gym.
An invitation to your teen is a sign you’re still interested in spending time together, which can go a long way in keeping the relationship strong and opportunities for communication and your influence alive.
For almost all those who experience teen weight gain, the motivation to change eating habits or exercise comes from within.
In other words, if your teen wants to work on this, she will because she is motivated to do so.
Being told what to do, or what to eat may fall on deaf ears, or be met with resentment or resistance.
Be ‘chill’ with your teen on the topics of weight and exercise, but be ready and open to help when you’re called to do so.
Have you had an experience with this? How did you handle it?
Need More Help with Raising Healthy Teens?
If you want the input of a pediatric nutrition professional’s expertise and guidance on the food, feeding and habits that lead to a healthy teen, check out The Nourished Child Blueprint.
It’s my online nutrition class detailing what it takes to set up the best home environment and feeding interactions so that children of all ages grow up eating healthy and growing well.
For other classes, workshops and guidebooks for parents wanting to learn about nutrition and feeding, visit The Nourished Child.
This post was updated on September 12, 2020.