Weight Loss for Teens: Finding a Healthy Weight  

Dr. Christopher McGowan
September 14, 2022

Being a teenager has always been tough, but the pressure to be thin has perhaps never been greater. Indeed, even as rates of teen obesity have increased over the last 10 years, so also has the number of teens who say they are trying to lose weight. This comes at a time when social media regularly highlights new fad diets and elaborate exercise programs that claim to help you lose weight fast and easily. The truth is that weight loss is never easy, but there are some safe and healthy ways for teens to find and maintain a healthy weight.       

What Is a Healthy Weight for Teens?   

Although weight loss is typically associated with achieving a desirable physique, the real reason for anyone to prioritize weight loss is long-term health. Over the past several decades, research continues to demonstrate the link between obesity and conditions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some types of cancer, and numerous other diseases and disorders. For teens, then, the first and most important consideration is their overall health and wellbeing and the impact of their weight. 

In fact, the term “overweight” is truly defined as the point at which excess body weight begins to negatively affect health. However, because this point is unique to every individual, healthcare professionals often evaluate a person’s body mass index (BMI). This number is derived from a comparison between a person’s height and weight; 18-24 is considered normal, 25-29 is overweight, and 30 or more is obese. For example, if a 5’5” person weighed 150lbs, they would have a BMI of 24.96 and would probably be slightly overweight; if the same person lost 10 pounds, their BMI would drop to 23.3. 

What Causes Weight Gain?     

One of the hard parts about establishing a healthy weight for a teen is the fact that some are still actually growing and therefore still gaining body weight. This means that a certain amount of weight gain is totally normal as a child progresses through adolescence. It is possible, though, to gain an unhealthy amount of weight; and, in fact, the percentage of young people aged 12-19 who are considered obese is now the highest on record (22.2%). There are many possible causes of weight gain, but below are some factors that may contribute: 

  • Puberty: All teens go through puberty, but it can be a very different experience for different people. For some (especially early teens), weight gain can be a result of hormonal changes, but for others it can be related to an increase in appetite.  
  • Health conditions: There are some conditions like hypothyroidism that can lead to weight gain without any changes to diet. There are also some medications that promote weight gain indirectly through side effects. 
  • Psychology: Adolescence is a time of emotional development as well as physical development, so there can be any number of psychological factors that might lead to weight gain. Many teens feel significant anxiety and depression for a wide variety of reasons, and both are linked with overeating.  
  • Diet: Even though metabolic activity tends to be higher during the teen years, it’s still very easy to eat more calories than you burn. This has become even easier with the endless high calorie fast food and junk food options that are now readily available. In addition to fat deposits adding to body weight gain, these foods can increase cholesterol and the chances of developing cardiovascular disease. 
  • Physical activity: Just like many adults, a lot of teens live a relatively sedentary lifestyle and don’t have much physical activity. Even apart from specific workouts, there is value in being active and moving around. Having a lack of exercise or physical activity has long been associated with overweight and obesity.    

Principles of Weight Loss         

The focus on body image and being perceived as thin has grown seemingly more intense in recent years, and this is perhaps even more prevalent among teenage girls. The cultural obsession with being skinny can and too often does lead teen girls down a path to an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia. Yet rather than looking to a specific diet or approach to exercise, here are some principles for losing weight that teens can safely incorporate into their lives: 

  • Read labels: One way to develop a habit of healthy eating is to be more aware of the contents of the food we eat. Packaged and processed foods tend to have unhealthy or unhelpful ingredients that can increase the likelihood of gaining weight or make it harder to lose weight.  
  • Beverages: A lot of commonly available sodas, juices, and energy drinks have a surprising amount of added sugar in them. Instead, swap out sugary beverages for water or sugar-free options.
  • Avoid junk food: Many of the most popular foods—ice cream, chips, fried foods, etc.—are high in calories, fats, and carbohydrates; even low-fat foods often still have added sugar or carbs. Look to replace such foods with healthy snacks like carrot sticks, nuts, seeds, or yogurt. 
  • Get enough sleep: Teens already need more sleep than adults, but recent research has also shown a link between weight gain and not getting enough sleep. Doctors recommend that teens get between 8-10 hours of sleep each night on average.  
  • Fiber: Dietary fiber is important for a healthy digestive system, but there is also evidence that high fiber content can increase feelings of fullness, lower blood pressure, and improve the body’s response to insulin, all of which can play a role in weight loss. The best way to add fiber to a healthy diet is to increase the amount of fruits, veggies, and whole grains.   
  • Move around: For both weight loss and overall health, it’s important to participate in regular physical activity. While it can be intimidating to step into the world of gyms and exercise, a starting point can be simply standing up and moving around more often or going for a short walk.   
  • Make it sustainable: One of the hardest parts about weight loss is finding ways to make small changes and incremental progress. When we first start the process and feel determined, it’s tempting to add intense workouts and adhere to highly restrictive diets. But sometimes these efforts aren’t really sustainable and can sometimes leave us feeling burned out too quickly.    

Bottom Line

Teenagers today are perhaps under more pressure than ever before to have a physique that meets certain standards. Rather than trying to meet these impossible standards, though, teens should focus on finding healthy habits and a healthy weight that promotes long term health. For most teens, this means emphasizing healthy food choices and an increase in regular physical activity. The bottom line: teen weight loss plans can be safe and healthy when they support overall health and wellbeing. 

Dr. Christopher McGowan
Dr. Christopher McGowan
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