Overweight Teens

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on December 08, 2022

If you're a teen who is overweight, you're certainly not alone. In the United States, the number of people who are overweight is dramatically increasing. In fact, the percentage of teens who are overweight has more than tripled since 1980. In 2004, almost one in five teens was overweight.

Being overweight usually results from an "energy imbalance." In short, when you take in more calories than you use, you gain weight.

Poor eating habits can help make teens overweight, particularly if they live on fast food and high-calorie processed food. Studies show that many teens eat more high-fat foods and fewer foods with necessary nutrients (vitamin A, folic acid, fiber, iron, calcium, and zinc) than is recommended for optimal health.

Much of the time, being overweight stems from a combination of poor eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle. That means a lifestyle with too much time spent in front of the computer or TV screen and too little time being physically active.

Girls are particularly at risk for being overweight as they move through the teen years -- a time when they typically become less active.

Genetics also play a role in weight. If one or both of your parents are overweight or obese, the chances are higher that you will follow in their footsteps.

Sometimes, emotional distress can result in excess fat. Teens may make bad food choices when they are upset, depressed, or anxious, turning to cookies, candy bars, and potato chips for comfort. Stress may also trigger eating binges.

Problems with your thyroid gland may result in weight gain, but this is not a common ailment. In addition, weight gain is one of the side effects of certain medications, like corticosteroids. These are sometimes used to treat asthma, allergies, and juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.

How much should you weigh? In years past, a height/weight chart was used. Today, most experts believe that body mass index (BMI) gives a more accurate picture of health. BMI is defined as body weight in relation to height. Calculating BMI can be done in a doctor's office or with a BMI calculator, which is available at many online sites -- as long as you have your correct measurements.

Teens with a higher percentage of body fat tend to have higher BMIs than teens who have a greater percentage of muscle. However, in a few cases -- such as with very muscular athletes, who might have high BMIs even though they are quite fit -- the BMI may not give an accurate picture of health risks.

And what's the difference between being "overweight" and "obese?" Being "overweight," defined as having a BMI of 25 to 29.9, implies being too heavy for one's height. Obesity, defined as having a BMI of 30 or above, refers specifically to having too much body fat. It is extra body fat, not muscle, that increases the risk of serious health problems.

When your doctor says you are "overweight," you are at higher risk for serious illnesses, such as heart disease, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure. Overweight teens are also at higher risk of psychological problems, such as depression. Also, being overweight and having increased abdominal fat is closely linked to type 2 diabetes, which has increased dramatically in teens.

Being overweight is associated with early onset of sexual maturity in girls and delayed sexual maturation in boys.

Everyone is different. Your best friend may be the same height as you and weigh 10 pounds less. Yet you both may be at your best weight, depending on factors like your bone structure and genetics.

Most teens' weights vary as they hit growth spurts during puberty. For example, over a period of 18 months, teen boys might go from a 5-foot, 141-pound eighth grader to a 6-foot-2,165-pound high school sophomore. Sure, they were chunky in eighth grade. But look at them now!

Usually it's obvious when you're overweight, especially when you look at your body in a full-length mirror after getting out of the shower. You might be able to pinch a lot of fat at your waist, belly, underarms, or thighs. You might notice that the number on your bathroom scales is a lot higher than it used to be. Or your clothes may become way too snug and are hard to button or zip.

The problem with being overweight is that it's unhealthy. The more excess weight you carry around, the higher your risk of serious diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer.

Studies have shown it again and again: Strict diets alone don't work. Strict dieting restricts calories and nutritious foods. This can cause you to feel deprived and result in binging or overeating.

The most effective way to reach an ideal weight is to burn more calories than you take in.

All teens should get at least 60 minutes of exercise daily, according to current recommendations. Not only does exercise help you burn calories, but you'll also increase your cardiovascular endurance. And here's another benefit: Gaining muscle can help you burn more calories all day, even while you are sitting around. Muscle mass is metabolically active tissue, meaning it is the tissue that burns calories.

If you already get 60 minutes of exercise daily, you may need to add 30 more minutes. If you don't get 60 minutes a day, start today. If you haven't been exercising and are overweight, it's a good idea to check with your doctor before you start a vigorous exercise program.

Eating a balanced diet is the other component of weight loss. As you plan your daily menu, choose more servings from the plant groups (legumes, tofu, nuts, fruits, and vegetables). Choose moderate servings of low-fat dairy, and pick fewer servings from the animal groups (meat). Then, choose fats and sweets very sparingly. Eliminate junk food, sodas, chips, and other foods that are low in nutrients and high in calories and fat.

Teens often underestimate how much they really eat. That's why it's important to understand just what makes up "one portion" of a food. For instance, look at the label on packages of bagels. One bagel can have as many as 350 calories or as few as 100.

For easy portion control, use the palm of your hand as a guide. Your palm is about the size of a 3-ounce portion of meat or fish; 3 ounces equal one serving. You can hold one serving of raw vegetables in the palm of your hand. One serving of fruit, such as an apple or half a banana, fits in the palm of your hand, too.

Consider one serving of grain (1/2 cup rice or pasta, a slice of bread, half a bagel, hamburger bun, or English muffin) and one serving of low-fat dairy (1 cup low-fat milk, 1 cup low-fat/sugar-free yogurt, 1 slice low-fat cheese, or 1 cup low-fat soy milk) and presto, you have a meal that's balanced and not supersized.

You also might want to eat smaller meals more frequently, which may help boost your metabolism and productivity. Five to six small meals per day may be ideal. Research has found that people who eat two meals or less during the day have a slower metabolic rate (the speed at which your body burns calories) than those who eat three or more times a day.

Eating frequently will also keep your blood sugar levels constant, so you don't feel irritable or overly hungry. Sometimes, eating a diet high in carbs and sweets causes your blood sugar level to spike, then drop dramatically. When it drops, you might feel cranky, tired, and extremely hungry.

Doctors and other health care professionals are the best people to determine whether your weight is healthy. They can help rule out rare medical problems as the cause of being overweight and support your goals to reach a normal weight and feel good about yourself.

Show Sources

National Institutes of Health'sWeight-control Information Network.
U.S. Department of Agriculture's mypyramid: "Steps to a Healthier You."

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