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The Secrets to Getting Teens to Lose Weight

By Dawn Brazell | News Center | Feb. 25, 2013

Janet Carter, RD, likes to use visuals to teach teens about nutrition. Here she shows what fat clogging a vessel can do to blood flow.

It’s hard work helping teens lose weight in an American culture of instant gratification, but it’s so worth it.

At least that’s what the Nietert family is finding.

Jackson, 13, is part of MUSC’s Heart Health Program, the pediatric weight management program of The Boeing Center for Children’s Wellness. The program teaches families how to improve diet and lifestyle in order to manage weight and improve cardiovascular risk factors through a series of one-on-one counseling sessions, group education sessions and fitness.

In the beginning, Jackson said he wasn’t thrilled to have his mother, Ellen, suggest he join the group. The good news is that his mother presented it without judgment and with the caveat that he could quit at anytime should it not prove to be successful.

“I’ve found all the hard work pays off,” he said, grinning at his mom. “I’ve gone from wanting to watch TV all day to wanting to make my goals.”

His mother, Ellen, said she was excited by a full team approach to weight loss. The whole family has gotten on board. They cook together on weekends, changed out the pantry to healthier foods and Jackson’s father joined the gym too so he could exercise with his son. Ellen also matches monetary rewards provided by the Heart Health program to keep Jackson motivated to meet his goals.

Ellen reaches out to pat her son’s arm. “He knows that I love him dearly.”

That statement gets to the crux of what successful parents do to help an overweight child make lasting lifestyle changes, said Janet Carter, a Sodexo registered dietitian and Heart Health program manager.

 teen obesity
 Ellen and Jackson Nietert share their tips on what's helped them get on a healthier weight loss track.

One reason so many families make no headway in battling childhood obesity is that parents use judgmental tactics and fail to provide a teamwork approach that children need to succeed. It’s one reason the Heart Health program is providing sample contracts and tips to help parents and a scripting video showing parents how to have that delicate conversation with their child about what can be an embarrassing issue affecting self-esteem. For printable tip sheets and a downloadable sample contract, visit this site. 

Carter said parents can’t afford to ignore the problem especially as it grows more common. About 1 in 3 children ages 2 – 19 are over overweight, with overweight teens facing a 70 percent chance of becoming overweight adults.

Here are her top 10 tips to help parents and health professionals reach out to overweight children to keep them from being susceptible to the escalating health costs of obesity.

Top Tips to Do Today to Fight Obesity in Teens and Children

1. Clean up your own habits.

You can’t expect your children to have healthier habits than you're willing to model.  

2. Out of sight, out of mind

Get the junk food out of the house. Don’t buy it. On the other hand, make sure you have plenty of fruits and vegetables in the house whether they be fresh, frozen or canned. They make for quick and easy snacks.

3. Get active as a family.

Examine what your barriers are and make an activity schedule. Tying family time into that is a good way to bond as a family. It helps children establish an activity pattern.   Put it on the calendar as a priority.

4. Cook more

It’s easy to get into the habit of having fast food meals. Cooking at home is quicker, cheaper, and it’s certainly healthier. If you plan ahead properly and cook on your days off, then you can have meals easy to reheat on those busy week nights.

5. Get buy-in from your child.

Have a discussion without judgment that allows them to figure out what kind of contract/reward system will work for them. Contracts create a sense of ownership where children/teens can have input. Make sure it is an open discussion and dialogue. Watch this video for tips on how to have this kind of conversation. Visit this site to download tips, record sheet and a sample contract.

 6.  Start with baby steps.

Set small, achievable goals. Very small steps can make a huge difference. Tackle a few changes at a time.

You can't expect your children to have healthier habits than you're willing to model.

Janet Carter, RD

 7. Timing is everything. Create  a sense of  urgency.

 In MUSC’s Heart Health program,  Carter and colleagues see children every two weeks where they check on goals. Having a  specific TIME FOCUSED goal is important to success. Don’t focus on weight as much as  healthier behaviors.

 8. Expect imperfection.

 Adopt a 90/10 rule where the goal is to do  well 90 percent of the time. You can goof up 10 percent of the time without big setbacks.

 9. Keep revising the goals.

 When healthy lifestyle behaviors have become habits, set a new mark. When possible make the goals fun, such as  enrolling in a healthy cooking class. If you fail, revisit the goal and see if it’s realistic.

10. A great reward system is the key to supporting healthy habits.

If you’re doing a contract, be sure to specify the reward. Celebrate small victories. The rewards should not be food or food related. For younger children, parents can use a bin of dollar toy items. The buy-in comes when you find out what motivates them. Talk to them and find out how they feel about their weight. The reward needs to be something that they can get excited about. Consistency is crucial here. “You can’t give it if they don’t do what they’re supposed to do.”



  Related Videos

teen obesity
Videos explore how to talk to your teen about the sensitive topic of weight loss. Part 1, Part 2

Related Stories >>

New initiative at MUSC Children's Hospital targets Wellness

Boeing makes investment in children's health, fitness

Resources >>

News You Can Use forms for families to download

Boeing Center for Children's Wellness

MUSC Weight Management Center

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

USDA - choose my plate


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