Fighting fat-olescence: How to parent healthy teens in unhealthy times

Sep 28, 2007 at 9:29 p.m. ET

When I attend school functions and sporting events, I notice that many of the kids are carrying extra weight. Some are just carrying a few extra pounds. Others are already struggling with full-fledged obesity. Often parents will dismiss an adolescent weight problem as "just baby fat." If "the baby" is 12 or older, it isn't baby fat! Clearly we have a crisis on our hands. But we parents can still do something about it.

Today's kids are not educated about nutrition or physical activity in the way they should be. In past generations, this wasn't as much of a problem because most meals were prepared at home, portion sizes were smaller, and there weren't nearly as many options for fast foods and packaged convenience foods. Before the invention of the minivan, kids were more likely to walk or bike to see their friends. Before the invention of cable television and the video game, kids were more likely to entertain themselves in non-sedentary ways.

Today's food marketers are also far more sophisticated and shrewd than they used to be. Food companies now deliberately direct their advertising toward kids, hoping to profit from the "pester power" that kids have on their parents. And these marketers know all too well that the teen years are when kids themselves are experiencing their own earning power and spending power for the first time.

Even adults will fall for promises of "wholesome, healthy flavor" on packages containing little more than sugar, saturated fat, and salt. Our kids are even more susceptible.

The cost of modern convenience foods is high. We consume loads of unhealthy fats, sugars, salts and chemicals that are added to give foods longer shelf lives. These additives make foods easier to prepare, faster to cook, better tasting, and readily accessible any time of day. So they fit into our time-starved lifestyle very easily. Unfortunately, they make it more difficult to fit into our jeans!

Although these unhealthy shortcut foods are a problem for the whole family, teens are especially at risk. They have money in their pockets from part-time jobs and friends with brand-new driver's licenses so they're eating away from home more than ever before. They're faced with a confusing array of physical changes, emotional issues and social pressures. And they are inundated with advertising that makes fast food seem cool and fun.

It's contradictory and cruel that the media encourages our teens to try some new giant fast food breakfast sandwich with 1,400 calories and 140 grams of fat -- while it's inundated with air-brushed, digitally altered images of slim, glowing, gorgeous celebrities and models. The unattainable extremes of size zero Hollywood starlets and steroid-enhanced athletes, combined with the all-too-attainable extremes of 1,400-calorie breakfast sandwiches, are creating an epidemic of eating disorders among teens.

Furthermore, today's teenagers, who are eating and drinking twice as many calories as their parents did at their age, may not be getting the nutrients they need. So they're not only fat, they're malnourished as well.

So what's a parent to do?
Start by setting a good example. If you spend all your free time on the sofa in front of the television, if you bring home buckets of chicken or boxes of pizza for dinner night after night, and especially if you smoke, your teenagers aren't going to take your concern for their healthy habits seriously.

  • Secondly, resist the urge to impose a new regimen of deprivation. In my experience, deprivation definitely doesn't work on adults. So it sure isn't going to work on teenagers. In my house, we indulge in "treats" like chips and ice cream occasionally. But we enforce sensible portion sizes and we don't make a habit of them.
  • We also read nutrition labels and ingredient listings, for treats and everything else we buy at the grocery store. Encourage your teens to see for themselves what they're eating -- how many calories, how much fat, and how much sodium. At this stage in their lives, teens want power and control. Information is power. Not only are teens perfectly capable of reading and understanding labels, they're usually better at remembering things than we are! So ask them to help you make healthier choices for your family's meals.
  • Make sure your teens know how their bodies use proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Some schools do a great job of teaching this but others don't. If you don't teach your teens about nutrition, they won't be equipped to recognize the true motives of food marketers. And they'll be more likely to pick up bad eating habits from their peers. I remember going to a party where a group of teenaged girls would not touch the hamburgers being served because they had all decided to become vegetarians. Instead, they chose to chow down on red licorice by the fistful.
  • Of course, food is only half of the equation. Exercise is the other half. Ask yourself what you can do to create an environment that supports physical activity. This means making activity fun. See how you can translate their interests into exercise. Does your teen have a crush on a tennis heartthrob or a weakness for martial arts movies? Encourage them to take some lessons. It can be challenging to get teens to stick with something long enough to know whether they really like it. So help them to set goals and use the promise of rewards, like designer tennis gear or a martial arts DVD, to help them achieve those goals. <

  • And lastly, encourage them to tune in to how their bodies are feeling. Ask them how they feel after eating an entire pizza or spending five hours in front of a computer game. And ask them how they feel after a basketball game or a healthy, well-balanced meal. Just ask. Don't lecture. But keep asking until the message sinks in. Teens may not care about heart disease and premature aging but they want to feel good and look good. So they are motivated to learn, despite the advertising, the peer pressure, and all the other obstacles, how to take care of themselves.