Teenage Weight Gain
I’ve seen it over and over in my practice: teenage weight gain that concerns parents. Some teens start to pack on weight—around the mid-section, in the hip and rear area, or just start looking pudgy all over — and that sends parents into the worry zone.
They wonder if there’s something they should do about it. Or, whether they should bring it up and voice their concerns.
For some teens, this weight gain will be a normal part of their development. The awkward, pudgy appearance that precedes an epic leap in height is completely a normal part of growing up.
For others, though, the appearance of extra weight—wherever it decides to settle on the body—is a sign that 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?
Stats on Teenage Weight Gain
According to Robert Malina, a researcher on childhood growth, adolescents gain weight and height in a predictable pattern, with height growth occurring first, followed by weight gain, or what I like to call “filling out.” (This is different from childhood growth where pudginess often happens before increases in height.)
In teen girls, peak height gains occur between ages 11-13 years, and in boys, the peak height gain happens between 13 and 15 years, on average.
The lean tissue (read: muscle and bone) weight gain 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#) at this time.
Given these “norms” for adolescent growth (and the signs that go along with it), you can begin to see that an important transformation happens for teens, and 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 weight gain that exceeds these averages. (And 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).
What if Weight Gain Isn’t Normal?
The first thing to assess is whether your teen is going through a normal stage of growth and development. The easiest and most accurate way to do this is to take a look at your teen’s growth chart. If weight and height seem to be progressing along as usual, 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, I still believe you should say nothing about it to your teen. Why? Because calling out weight gain in a teen can be very disturbing and disruptive to their developing self-esteem and their body satisfaction. Body dissatisfaction has been highlighted as a risk factor for dieting and other dangerous, weight-reducing efforts, as well as a contributor to the development of an eating disorder.
Words Can Harm
If you have concerns about your teen’s weight gain, tread lightly, particularly with what you say. Starting on a tirade of what’s healthy to eat and what’s not, extolling the virtues of exercise, nagging your teen to exercise, or commenting on their appearance may do more harm than good, and is unlikely to motivate your teen to eat better or exercise more.
In fact, it can make eating worse and turn off your teen to exercise!
Many teens will be aware, and self-conscious of, their changing body. They may ask you, “Do you think I’m fat?” They may look for your guidance, but they may not be as concerned as you, nor respond to your lectures about long-term health. An appointment with a dietitian or other health provider, if not inspired by your teen, is unlikely to be successful, and may even be damaging. Some teens may try to take things into their own hands by dieting, skipping meals, or over-exercising.
What You Can Do to Help
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 looks like nagging, inspirational discussions, or offers of help. As mentioned, these direct interventions often fall flat.
The good news, though, is that there are plenty of things you can do to help without harming.
4 Ways to Help the Teen Who 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. While you can’t do much about your teen’s eating outside of your home, you can keep the 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.
Make sure nutritious foods are front and center. Nix the unhealthy snack foods, and 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 and a regular exerciser yourself.
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 should be conducting their daily lives.
#3: Keep the Lines of Communication Open
Be non-judgmental and open to discussing your teen’s body and weight concerns. Maybe your teen tells you that he is frustrated with his lack of muscle, or the appearance of his belly, or that she is uncomfortable in her 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 Do Something
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 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.
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?
If you want the input of a nutrition professional’s opinion and guidance on the food, feeding and habits that lead to a healthy weight, check out The Nourished Child Project, an online nutrition course detailing what it takes to set up the best home environment so that children of all ages grow up eating and growing well.