Obesity: A Guide for Parents

Young women's version of this guide

Wicker basket with assorted raw organic vegetables in the gardenIf your child’s health care provider (HCP) told you that he or she has overweight or obesity you may be experiencing a variety of emotions. It is important to keep in mind that while having overweight or obesity can cause health problems, your child’s risk of any health problems will decrease as they make lifestyle changes to work towards a healthier weight. Even if their weight doesn’t change, behavioral changes will make them healthier! It’s also important to remember that having a positive body image is more important than any number on a scale. Help your child focus on their positive parts that make them special.Words Matter

Choose your words carefully when talking to your teen. Don’t use words like “fat” or “obese” when describing your child as they can be harmful to self-image and can actually lead to more eating or use of harmful dieting behaviors. Focusing on their health, rather than their weight, can be helpful.

How do I know if I have overweight or obesity?

Health care providers use something called Body Mass Index (BMI) to calculate overweight and obesity. BMI is a tool that shows a ratio (or comparison) of height to weight and can be used to estimate body fat. If your teen is under the age of 19, their BMI is plotted onto a growth chart. Whether their weight falls into the “underweight,” “normal weight,” “overweight” or “obese” category depends on where the BMI falls on the chart:

  • BMI percentile <5th: underweight
  • BMI percentile 5th-85th: normal weight
  • BMI percentile 85th-95th: overweight
  • BMI percentile >95th: obese

If your child is over the age of 19, the BMI classification is based simply on the number:

  • BMI <18.5 kg/m2: underweight
  • BMI 18.6-24.9 kg/m2: normal weight
  • BMI 25-29.9 kg/m2: overweight
  • BMI >30 kg/m2: obese

To calculate BMI you can use this equation:

Weight (in pounds) x 703 divided by Height (in inches) squared

If your teen is under 19 and you want to figure out their BMI percentile, you’ll need to ask their health care provider to look at the growth chart. Remember, BMI is not a perfect tool. Even if BMI places your child into an overweight or obese category, ask the doctor if he or she needs to make any changes to weight for overall health. A health care provider will first assess your teen’s weight history, activity level, diet, and body composition (such as how muscular they are) before they decide if they need to make any changes.

Is it unhealthy to have overweight or obesity?

Having overweight or obesity can increase the risk of:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Asthma
  • Sleep apnea
  • Hypertension
  • High blood pressure
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Joint pain
  • High cholesterol and/or triglycerides
  • Fatty liver disease
  • Metabolic syndrome

Usually, these health concerns don’t affect someone as a teen, but can make them more likely to have them as an adult if they have overweight or obesity now. There is increasing awareness that people can be healthy at any size; however, it’s important to screen for possible health problems.

How did my teen develop overweight or obesity?

Studies have shown that having overweight or obesity is closely tied to genetics as well as individual metabolism (how quickly a body turns food into energy), and environmental factors such as diet and exercise. There is nothing that a person can do to change their genetics. However, environment can be changed by getting more exercise, eating healthier food and making healthier drink choices.

My child’s health care provider (HCP) told them to lose weight, what should I do?

If your child’s HCP told you that their health would be improved by losing weight, ask about whether maintaining the current weight might be a good first step. For adolescents who might still be growing, this is often an appropriate goal.  If your teen feels ready to make weight loss a goal but isn’t sure where to start, they can ask their HCP for a referral to an exercise program and/or an appointment with a registered dietitian. These small lifestyle changes can make a big difference towards health:

  • Increase movement. If your teen is not currently physically active, encourage them to start with a small goal of walking 30 minutes a few times per week. Gradually add more minutes, days and intensity to the workouts. It’s important that they find something that they enjoy doing as they’ll be more likely to stick with it. Consider joining them on a walk or playing a favorite sport!
  • Decrease processed or refined carbohydrates. This includes soda, juice, candy, sweets, baked goods, chips, etc.
  • Eat more fruits and veggies. These foods are packed full of important nutrients and also contain fiber, which can help with weight management.
  • Drink more water. Whether drinking water instead of sugar sweetened beverages or just trying to stay well-hydrated, a good goal is to drink about 8 glasses per day.
  • Get enough sleep. Research studies have shown that the amount of sleep you get has a direct effect on weight. If making the other changes sound too hard or challenging right now for your teen, this might be a good first step! Encourage good sleep habits in your teen such as turning off screens prior to getting into bed and keeping a consistent bedtime.
  • Eat regular meals and snacks throughout the day. It’s important to avoid becoming overly hungry which can lead to eating larger portions than the body needs.
  • Check-in with feelings. If you think that your teen’s weight or eating might be directly tied to emotions, ask his or her health care provider about meeting with a therapist who can help work through these emotions and find alternatives to using food as comfort.
  • Limit screen time. We know screens are everywhere. But try to limit the amount of time your teen uses them. Most importantly, try not to let them eat when watching TV, movies, or using a computer or tablet. Eating while watching a screen keeps you from eating mindfully and typically leads to overeating—and less enjoyment of your food!
  • Encourage family meals. These days everyone has busy schedules, but research studies have shown that eating dinner together as a family (with the TV turned off) can help to prevent overweight and obesity. Try to fit this on when schedules allow.

Remember, there are hundreds of thousands of teens dealing with this issue and plenty of resources and support. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your teen’s health care provider to ask what resources are available to your family such as: support groups, discounted gym memberships, or meeting individually with a counselor or dietitian.