Question: We have a teenager who is seriously overweight. How can we help him shed his excess pounds and shift his lifestyle and eating habits in a more healthy direction?


This is an area in which you need to proceed with caution. The wrong attitude and approach can generate a great deal of pain, shame, guilt and anger. In particular, beware of putting a child or teenager on a "diet" – especially one that involves a significant number of food restrictions – without consulting a professional who is knowledgeable in this field.

The first thing you should do is determine whether your child is genuinely overweight. Among other things, this will involve calculating his body mass index (BMI), a number expressed as a ratio between an individual’s height and weight. We strongly suggest that you see your physician or a dietitian for an expert analysis of your child’s condition. You can also find BMI calculators on several websites.

Assuming that there is a definite problem with your child’s weight and its physical and emotional consequences, there are several action items to consider and a number of pitfalls to avoid if at all possible. We propose that you begin by taking the following steps.

  1. Get professional assistance, preferably from a registered dietitian who works with children and adolescents. The kind of help you should seek from the dietitian is not a lecture about overeating and a highly restricted diet for your child, but information for the entire family as well as some positive engagement with and encouragement for your teen. A specialist in this field will be able to help you identify emotional, psychological and family-based issues that may be contributing to the problem.

  2. Don’t make a specific restrictive diet the focus of your efforts, except under unusual circumstances involving professional supervision. The key to overcoming a weight problem is not diet but comprehensive change in attitude, behaviour and daily habits.

  3. At all costs, avoid nagging, name-calling, insults or other forms of negativity as a tactic to "encourage" weight loss. If he is truly overweight, your teen is probably receiving a heart-wrenching amount of this kind of treatment outside the home. It’s crucial that he understands that your love and his worth as God’s child and yours do not depend on what he weighs.

  4. Accentuate the positive. What you are promoting is not endless deprivation but a whole new way of enjoying food. So go out of your way to praise good eating decisions instead of focusing on blocking bad ones.

  5. The whole family should be eating from the same meal plan, which can be healthy without being austere. What’s good and healthy for your overweight teen is good and healthy for everybody.

  6. Remember that gradual changes in eating habits (and thus weight) are more likely to succeed than "emergency" measures and drastic commando tactics. An incremental approach will be more effective in the long run.

  7. While you can’t ultimately force an overweight child to watch what he eats, you can take a number of steps to encourage better habits. For example, you can plan regular meals and eliminate snacks. You can encourage your teen to eat slowly. You can phase out meals in front of the TV. And you can encourage physical activity in which everyone in the family participates.

Remember that, as with training and moulding your children in any area, there is no surefire, detailed plan that works for everyone. There are, however, some fundamental goals and principles that should give you a basic sense of direction as you work out the specifics for your own family. An excellent resource that may help you in this area is Dr. Walt Larimore’s SuperSized Kids: How to Rescue Your Child From the Obesity Threat. This book is available through most online and local bookstores.

Excerpted from The Complete Book of Baby and Child Care published by Tyndale House Publishers. © 1997, 2007, Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.

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