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It’s no exaggeration that there’s an obesity epidemic among U.S. teens. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that more than 20 percent of 12 to 19-year-olds are obese. Over time, obesity is a major risk factor for many serious medical conditions, including:
- Cancer, including colorectal cancer, endometrial cancer, and kidney cancer
- Heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
The way we live as a society, from fast food to sedentary time spent on devices, makes it difficult for teens to avoid obesity and to handle it on their own if it develops. Teens need support, and I’ve put together a quick list of tips for parents and guardians to help teens achieve a healthy weight.
1. Get active as a family
Teenagers in past generations used to get a lot more exercise than teens today: soccer with the neighborhood kids, pickup basketball games, swimming at the local pool. But today’s teens get an average of nine hours of screen time a day, including:
- Checking social media
- Playing video games
- Watching TV and movies
Nine hours is longer than the vast majority of teens spend on school, sleeping, or being physically active. Some teens naturally gravitate toward organized sports, but if your child isn’t athletically inclined, it’s still important to help them get at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day:
- Consider a family bike ride or walk around the neighborhood a few nights a week
- Play Pokémon Go or try geocaching to find hidden treasures at specific outdoor locations based on GPS coordinates
- Try a yoga class or low-impact aerobics at the local community center
2. Eat well together
There’s so much junk food out there, and that’s naturally what many teens want. It doesn’t help that super-sized sodas, greasy burgers, and sweets are cheap and convenient. Support your teen’s weight goals by making a family commitment to eating healthy:
- Avoid large meal portions at home and when eating out
- Buy large bags of frozen vegetables or bulk canned vegetables to save money
- Choose sweet, crunchy fruits and vegetables for snacks instead of chips or cookies
- Serve popcorn without butter as a cost-effective snack
- Skip soda in favor of sugar-free flavored ice water
- Swap out the fried, fatty meats for lean cuts or beans
- Use resources like the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ChooseMyPlate to plan nutritious meals
Related reading: 3 Tactics to Battle Food Portion Distortion
Make one change out a time. Reducing fried foods, chips, and soda often is the most difficult change for teens. Start with one temptation, and once that’s mastered, move to the next.
3. Encourage teens to make healthier choices at school
Schools often have to strike a difficult balance between the cost and nutrition of meals. Less-expensive food tends to be less healthy. Encourage your teen to let school administrators know they prefer healthier foods whenever possible. You also can teach them to come to pack healthy snacks and lunches themselves, including fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.
Snacks and drinks in school vending machines often are another source of unhealthy calories. Thankfully, there are nutrition standards in place for vending machines and other snack-selling locations in District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia schools that allow only healthy, nutritious foods and drinks during the school day, which is a step in the right direction. Help your teen avoid the urge to splurge by encouraging them to carry a water bottle. Consider sending them to school with sugar-free, single-serving flavor packets to make drinking water more fun.
4. Score healthy snacks for teens’ sports programs
Depending on the sport your teen plays and how frequently they play, they might not always burn off the same amount of energy they consume through their post-game snacks. That can lead to weight gain. For example, my son played baseball when he was younger, and parents were responsible for bringing snacks for the kids. Many brought chips and cookies – not the best choices for low-intensity practices shorter than an hour.
Work with your young athlete’s coach and other parents to provide healthier alternatives, such as:
- Celery with peanut butter instead of protein bars
- Smoothies or yogurt instead of cookies and candy
- Water instead of soda
Teens still depend on their parents to take care of them. Achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight is the whole family’s responsibility. It’s not always easy, but committing to a healthier lifestyle is important to teach your teen healthy habits for life.