Teens Can't Weight For Anything

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Our journeys to weight loss always encounter a number of snags. The problems are expounded when a parent is looking for weight loss solutions for their child. Adolescents are impressionable and going through especially important developmental stages. The language we use and the efforts we make to encourage teens to a healthier lifestyle can harm them, even with the best intentions.

Studies show that weight loss attempts in young adolescents that focus on body image tend to have several negative effects, both mentally and physically. Longitudinal analyses have shown that low levels of body satisfaction are predictive of later signs of lower self-esteem and depressive symptoms (Holsen, Kraft, & Roysamb, 2001; Johnson & Wardle, 2005; Stice & Bearman, 2001). The leading risk factor for eating disorders is consistently a high level of body dissatisfaction (Jacobi, Hayward, de Zwaan, Kraemer, & Agras, 2004; Stice, 2002). Overall, body dissatisfaction is a predictor of increased dieting, unhealthy weight control behaviors, binge eating, decreased physical activity, and decreased fruit and vegetable intake. Even controlling for individuals’ weights and BMIs, the risk factors remain the same (Neumark-Sztainer, Paxton, Hannan, Haines, & Story, 2006). An increase in dieting and unhealthy weight-control behaviors alone can increase risk for obesity. Unfortunately, some obesity prevention efforts will lead to increased risk for obesity by not successfully motivating adolescents to engage in behaviors with benefits for long-term weight management.

I ask a lot of middle school and high school students about what they learn in their health and their physical education classes. According to their responses, they don’t learn much at all and when they do learn useful things, they don’t spend enough time on them.

If they’re not learning in school how to properly eat and exercise and most adults aren’t as knowledgeable as they’d like to be about it themselves, then how do we encourage our children to lose weight?

It’s simple: Don’t.

Don’t encourage them to lose weight. Don’t tell them they need to work out to lose weight. Don’t even mention a scale.

Instead, encourage them to join a sport. There are dozens inside and outside of school. Let them try different kinds, encourage them to stick to at least one. There is a type of physical activity out there for everyone to enjoy. There are team sports, there are solo sports, and there are sports with partners. If your child is in high school and doesn’t have the skillset to join one of the competitive high school teams, there are organizations outside of school for those sports for varying skill levels.

Exercise doesn’t have to be a sacrifice. It doesn’t need to be an hour set aside on each day for the only intended goal of losing weight. No one wants to do that. It’s hard, it’s demotivating, and makes a healthy lifestyle a chore. Joining a tennis club or signing up at a martial arts school has infinite more benefits than doing a half-ass jog a couple times a week or dragging your young teen to the gym. Instead, sign him or her for your local Y’s basketball league.

In psychology are are two types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. When a person does a task or activity with the expectation of a reward, they are described as extrinsically motivated. Whereas if a person does a task or activity simply for the enjoyment of the activity itself, it’s described as intrinsic motivation.

When we create an external reward for a task, such as looking skinnier or losing x amount of pounds, we create a type of motivation that isn’t likely to sustain itself. On the other hand, we can  spend the time to find a physical activity that can be truly enjoyed, with the side effect of benefiting us health-wise (and weight-wise).

What about dieting? How are you supposed to encourage your child to lose weight if we don’t talk about diet? “Diet” has become a dirty word. No one should have ever used that word as a verb. You don’t “diet”.

You can go on a specific diet. You can change your diet. Either way, your diet is what you eat. Maybe you have an unhealthy diet, but it’s still a diet. “Dieting” also has a bunch of harmful connotations like eating less, counting calories, and extreme (aka harmful) “Lose Belly Fat in 12 Weeks!!!”-type of diets.

Just like you shouldn’t encourage your child to “exercise to lose weight”, you shouldn’t encourage “starting a diet”.

Instead teach your children how to cook simple, healthy meals. Do they know how to make oatmeal? A smoothie? What do you buy from the grocery store? Is there a bag of chips in the cabinet or did you buy the greek yogurt instead? A “diet” is a regimented, excruciating pain in the ass. But if I’m looking for a snack after school and you don’t buy the chips and the cookies, I’m going to be grabbing that yogurt, or maybe a cup of almonds.

Using things like a scale, a “diet”, an exercise program, or body image as a means to weight loss can lead to harmful effects. Your 11 year old shouldn’t be losing weight because she’s “fat”, that leads to body dissatisfaction. She should be joining a sport and learning to seek healthier alternatives for snacks, this leads to the slow building of good habits that would develop a healthy lifestyle for a lifetime. Don’t celebrate losing 5 pounds or looking better, instead celebrate physical achievements like a new mile time or better handling on a soccer field. Your child will be happier and healthier for it.