Child Development and Parenting: Adolescence
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Common Nutritional Challenges for Teenagers: Adolescent Obesity

Angela Oswalt, MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

Despite parents' best efforts, some nutritional problems can still arise or worsen during adolescence. These problems include problems of overeating and/or consistently making poor food choices, resulting in obesity. Conversely, other adolescents develop problems with unhealthy and extremely restrictive dieting without meeting the minimum nutritional requirements necessary for healthy growth and development. Diabetes is yet another challenge. Some children are first diagnosed with Diabetes during adolescence and must learn to manage their disease. Other children may have already been diagnosed but develop new difficulties managing their disease. In this section we will explore some of these special nutritional challenges and suggest some practical solutions.

Adolescent Obesity

Obesity is a medical condition in which a person has too much body fat. Calling childhood obesity an "epidemic" and a "national health crisis," the Whitehouse Childhood Obesity Task Force Report to the President reported nearly one third of children ages 2-19 is overweight or obese, and one quarter of all Americans age 17-24 are unqualified for military service because of being overweight (United States White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, 2010). Fortunately, the childhood obesity epidemic has moved out of the shadows and into the spotlight thanks to the First Lady, Mrs. Obama, who launched her campaign to battle childhood obesity, called "Let's Move".

Obesity occurs when people eat more food (the body's fuel), than the body requires. When the body consumes food in excess of its fuel requirements, it stores these extra calories in the form of body fat. Bodies that are highly active, have greater caloric requirements than sedentary bodies. Thus, obesity can develop from eating too much food, or not being active enough, or both. The problem with excess body fat, is that it leads to development of other medical complications and problems. Obesity can prevent the body from using blood sugar correctly, which may lead to the development of Diabetes. Excess fat circulating in the blood stream can block arteries causing blood clots to form as blood circulation slows at the blockage, the same way water slows and pools at a dam. The clots can break free and cause heart attacks and strokes. Excess weight strains the heart and cardiovascular system as they must work harder to carry the extra weight around. Excess weight also puts too much pressure on bones and joints, leading to pain and premature joint deterioration. Historically, these medical conditions were limited to adults, but doctors are noticing an alarming trend as more and more youth are being diagnosed with these same problems.

How can parents determine if their children are obese? First, parents should raise this question with the child's physician or other health care provider. Medical personnel typically use the Body Mass Index (BMI) to determine obesity. The BMI uses a calculation that allows comparison between people because it factors in height, weight, and age. The Centers for Disease Control has a website that people can use for free to determine their BMI rating or their children's BMI. Based on the BMI, people's weight can be classified as Underweight, Normal, Overweight, or Obese.

It is simplest to prevent obesity in the first place. But if you find your child is obese, we suggest you review the sections on caloric requirements, and nutritional guidelines for practical suggestions about fostering healthy eating habits. It is important not to tease or shame children or teens who have become overweight or obese. This only serves to create a poor self-image and makes achieving a healthy weight more difficult. Furthermore, subsequent problems can develop such as an Eating Disorder.

There is a strong correlation between overweight youth and overweight parents (Whitaker, Wright, Pepe, Seidel & Dietz, 1997; Guillame, Lapidus, Beckers, Lamber & Bjorntorp, 1995) Therefore, if one or both parents have not yet adopted healthy eating patterns, it is never too late to begin. In this way, the entire family is sharing a goal of improving their health. Thus, the best way for parents to help their pre-teens and teens combat obesity is to model a healthy lifestyle that focuses on plenty of fun physical activity and a wholesome, balanced diet with proper portions, a wide array of healthy food choices, and limited amounts of junk food. This does not mean youth should be expected to avoid all junk food. Such an approach would be experienced as punitive and runs the risk that youth will develop a negative relationship with food.

Because obesity results from an imbalance between food consumption and physical exertion, it is often easier to correct by adding in additional activity rather than taking away or restricting foods. Overweight and obese teens might be encouraged to take up a new sport, or enroll in a new class such as dance or Taekwondo. There are even electronic video games in which players must use their whole body to play a virtual sport. More ideas about physical activity opportunities can be found later in this article under the Exercise & Sports section. Parents should always consult with their children's doctor or pediatrician if they are concerned their youth is overweight, experiencing negative effects of obesity, or need help losing weight. Older adolescents living on their own should be encouraged to consult their doctor under these circumstances, as well.