This post was updated on March 21, 2019.
When teens start to pick up extra weight, it can concern parents. Learn why teens gain weight and what you can do to help (without harming your relationship with your teen).
I’ve seen it over and over in my pediatric nutrition practice: teens gaining too much weight. It’s a concern for their parents.
They see their teens experience sudden weight gain around the mid-section, in the hip and rear area, and a general pudginess all over.
Parents wonder if there’s something they should do about it.
Or, if they should somehow stop the weight gain.
They’re not sure what caused it. They’re not sure if they should bring it up and voice their concerns.
Many want to know how to handle their teen’s eating and weight gain without causing more problems, such as disordered eating or an eating disorder.
In this article you’ll learn about normal weight gain in teens, the common causes of too much weight gain, and ways to help the teen who is gaining too much weight.
Is Pre-Puberty Weight Gain Normal?
For some teens, weight gain will be a normal part of development.
Pre-pubertal weight gain certainly happens, but the total amount of weight gain across the span of the teenage growth spurt is significant.
That awkward, pudgy appearance that precedes an epic leap in height is a completely normal part of puberty.
Adolescent girls can gain fifteen pounds or so during the growing years of puberty, while boys gain upward of thirty pounds during this time.
For other teens though, rapid weight gain—wherever it decides to settle on the body—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.
What Causes Weight Gain
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 “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 more fat (~6#) on average than boys (~3#).
Given these “norms,” and the signs that go along with it, you can begin to see that an important transformation happens for teens. Much of it is to be expected.
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.
What may not be normal is large meals and extra calories, both of which can cause unwanted and unhealthy weight gain.
(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.)
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).
My Son/Daughter is Gaining Weight Fast
Teens can be gaining too much weight for a variety of reasons.
One, the increased independence afforded by a driver’s license can lead to more drive thru visits and dining out. Translated: extra calories.
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).
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.
A high calorie diet can be the norm.
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 gain weight.
How to Handle Puberty Weight Gain (When It’s Too Much)
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 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 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 a contributor to the development of an eating disorder.
What You Say About Weight Can 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 ask you the question, “Do you think I’m fat?”
Don’t panic if this happens. Many teens are simply looking for your guidance and reassurance.
You and Your Teen May Not See Eye to Eye
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.
Certainly, the teen years are a sensitive time for dieting, disordered eating, and abusing exercise.
How to Stop Teenage Weight Gain (In Positive Ways)
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.
How to Help When Your Teen is Gaining Too Much 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.
(Teens LOVE to snack so check out my healthy snack list below!)
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 teenage 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?
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 weight, check out The Nourished Child Project.
It’s my online nutrition course detailing what it takes to set up the best home environment so that children of all ages grow up eating healthy and growing well.
Written by: Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Published on: August 8, 2018
Updated on: July 10, 2019