Healthy habits are the key to teen weight loss. Show your teen the way with this practical plan for success. By Mayo Clinic Staff

Teenage obesity is a dangerous — and widespread — problem. Like any weight-loss challenge, there's no magic bullet for teen weight loss. Still, there's plenty you can do to help. Start by encouraging your teen to adopt healthy habits that can last a lifetime.

If your teen is overweight, he or she is probably as concerned about the excess weight as you are. Aside from lifelong health risks such as high blood pressure and diabetes, the social and emotional fallout of being overweight can be devastating for a teenager. It can also be frustrating to attempt weight loss and have poor results. Offer support and gentle understanding — and a willingness to help your teen manage the problem.

You might say, "I can't change your weight. That's up to you. But I can help you make the right decisions."

Weight and body image can be delicate issues, especially for teenage girls. When it comes to teen weight loss, remind your teen that there's no single ideal weight and no perfect body. The right weight for one person might not be the right weight for another.

Rather than talking about "fat" and "thin," encourage your teen to focus on practicing the behaviors that promote a healthy weight and satisfaction with body size and shape. Your family doctor can help set realistic goals for body mass index and weight based on your teen's age, height and general health.

Help your teen understand that losing weight — and keeping it off — is a lifetime commitment. Fad diets can rob your growing teen of iron, calcium and other essential nutrients. Weight-loss pills and other quick fixes don't address the root of the problem and could pose risks of their own. Even then, the effects are often short-lived. Without a permanent change in habits, any lost weight is likely to return — and then some.

Teens need about 60 minutes of physical activity a day — but that doesn't necessarily mean 60 solid minutes at a stretch. Shorter, repeated bursts of activity during the day can help burn calories, too.

Team sports through school or community programs are great ways to get active. If your teen isn't an athlete or is hesitant to participate in certain sports, that's OK. Encourage him or her to walk, bike or in-line skate to school, or to walk a few laps through the halls before class. Suggest trading an hour of after-school channel surfing for shooting baskets in the driveway, jumping rope or walking the dog. Even household chores and video games that require physical movement can help your teen burn calories.

If your teen fights the alarm clock the way it is, asking him or her to get up even earlier to eat breakfast might be a tough sell — but it's important. A nutritious breakfast will give your teen energy to face the day ahead. Even better, it might keep your teen from eating too much later in the day.

If your teen resists high-fiber cereal or whole-wheat toast, suggest last night's leftovers. Even a piece of string cheese or a small handful of nuts and a piece or two of fruit can do the job.

It can be tough to make healthy choices when vending machines and fast food abound, but it's possible. Encourage your teen to replace even one bag of chips or order of fries a day with a healthier grab-and-go option from home:

  • Frozen grapes
  • Oranges, strawberries or other fresh fruit
  • Sliced red, orange or yellow peppers
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Baby carrots
  • Low-fat yogurt or pudding
  • Pretzels
  • Graham crackers
  • String cheese

When it comes to portions, size matters. Encourage your teen to scale back, eat slowly, and stop eating when he or she is full — both at home and away from home. It might take just one slice of pizza or half the pasta on the plate to feel full. An occasional indulgence is OK, but even then there's no shame in sharing a meal, ordering a smaller portion or skipping dessert.

The calories in soda, fruit juice, sports drinks and specialty coffees can add up quickly. Drinking water instead of soda and other sugary drinks might spare your teen hundreds of calories a day — or even more. For variety, suggest calorie-free flavored water or seltzer water.

Rather than singling out your teen, adopt healthier habits as a family. After all, eating healthier foods and getting more exercise is good for everyone — and research suggests that family involvement has a significant effect on childhood weight management.

For example:

  • Stock up on fruits, veggies and whole grains. Keep these foods in plain sight, and be sure to set a good example yourself.
  • Leave junk food at the grocery store. Healthy foods sometimes cost more, but it's an important investment.
  • Keep food in the kitchen. Eat at the kitchen counter or table — not on the couch while watching TV or playing computer or video games.
  • Limit screen time. Trade screen time for family activities, such as playing catch or hiking.
  • Don't focus on food. Make physical activity a topic of family conversations, rather than what or how much anyone is eating.

Being overweight doesn't inevitably lead to a lifetime of low self-esteem. Still, your acceptance is critical. Listen to your teen's concerns. Comment on his or her efforts, skills and accomplishments. Make it clear that your love is unconditional — not dependent on weight loss.

If your teen is struggling with low self-esteem or isn't able to cope with his or her weight in a healthy manner, consider a support group, formal weight-control program or professional counseling. Additional support can give your teen the tools to counter social pressure, cultivate more positive self-esteem, and take control of his or her weight. The benefits will last a lifetime.

Dec. 03, 2011