We commonly hear that two-thirds of all adults in the U.S. are overweight or obese, and that adult obesity has risen at an alarming rate over the past 30 years. What is less commonly heard is that the rate of obesity has risen nearly three times faster in adolescents as compared to adults in the past 30 years! Importantly, 70 percent of obese teens become obese adults, and adult obesity has been linked to other serious diseases including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and several forms of cancer. Thus, the teen years represent a particularly crucial time to reach kids and help them build healthier habits that they can continue into adulthood.
What is obesity and how is it diagnosed?
Obesity is an excess of body fat. It is usually diagnosed based on Body Mass Index (BMI), a measure of weight adjusted for height, which is a surrogate marker for body fat. Obesity in teens is defined as a BMI in the 95th percentile or higher, compared to other kids of the same gender and age. While measuring BMI is still more common, measuring body fat content is actually a much more accurate marker of obesity than BMI.
Doctors are trying to focus more on prevention rather than just treatment of obesity. Particularly in teens who are overweight and most at risk for obesity. By focusing more on prevention—developing a healthy lifestyle which prevents teens from having to make drastic and difficult changes in the future to maintain a healthy body weight.
What can you do?
Look at trusted sources like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) or the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Christopher Ochner, PhD, also maintains a blog that gives handy information about nutrition.
Know your numbers.
Get an accurate measurement of your body fat level and/or BMI, and talk to your doctor about what your numbers should look like. Don’t wait for your doctor to bring it up.
Know the calories you are consuming.
Watch out for hidden calories in beverages and sauces, as well as oil and butter added to healthy foods like vegetables.
Adding physical activity into your normal routine can make a big difference for teens. Get off the subway or bus one stop earlier. Make after school and on weekends activities with friends active.
If you are a parent, be a good role model.
Parents should model healthy eating habits for their kids. Parents should not use food to stop young children from crying or pressure them to be thin; this actually contributes to obesity.
Make healthy eating a family project.
Get your kids involved with planning nutritious family meals that include foods they like. Have your teen pick out a new vegetable and prepare it for the family to try.
Christopher N. Ochner, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Adolescent Medicine for the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and Director of Research Training and Development at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. Dr. Ochner’s work includes developing a clinically-based research program focused on obesity prevention and treatment.
Lonna P. Gordon, is a Pediatrics, Adolescent Medicine Fellow.