The cornerstone of good health is a healthy weight. This is true for children, teenagers as well as adults. Excess weight at any age is considered a health risk.

Excess weight increases your risk for chronic life-threatening health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. It can also shorten your lifespan. It is therefore imperative to manage your weight, keeping it within the healthy range, throughout your life.

Overweight teens not only have to live with health risks and the prospect of being obese in their adult years, but they also must deal with teasing from their peers and social isolation. “Bullying related to excess weight can affect a vulnerable teenager’s body image and self-esteem for life,” says Dr Sonali Ganguly, Consultant at the LIFE Centre, Singapore General Hospital (SGH), a member of the SingHealth group.

Overweight teenagers, especially girls, are also highly susceptible to developing eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating which carry their own adverse health risks.

Excess weight in pre-teens is associated with the early onset of sexual maturity in girls and delayed sexual maturity in boys.

Why teenagers have weight issues

The key to weight management for teenagers, like for adults, is to exercise and control the diet. Teenagers tend to have weight issues for the following reasons:

  • Excessive snacking and lack of a balanced diet: consuming an excess amount of high-fat and high-sugar junk foods. Stress may cause binge eating and comfort eating leading to excessive calorie consumption.
  • Lack of exercise and a sedentary lifestyle: excessive screen time – television, computer and video-game consoles – is a primary reason for the lack of physical activity in children and teens.
  • Lack of sleep and sleeping late
  • Genetics: weight problems run in families and teenagers with overweight parents may struggle with weight management

The tendency of teenagers to go to sleep late and wake up late has also been found to promote weight gain. An Australian study on children and teenagers aged 9 to 16 found that those who woke up and went to bed late were 1.5 times more likely to be obese than those who kept normal hours.

According to the World Health Organisation, computer games are the single biggest cause of childhood obesity. “Spending hours in front of the television or the computer screen encourages a sedentary lifestyle, snacking and poor eating habits,” says Dr Ganguly. “Sleeping late and waking up late has also been associated with reduced physical activity and a greater intake of junk foods.”

How teenagers can manage their weight

To maintain a healthy weight, teenagers need to spend more time outdoors involved in active play, and eat a balanced diet that includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and low fat dairy products. They also need to consume fewer sodas and sweetened beverages which are a leading cause of obesity at this age.

The recommendation for physical activity for teenagers is 60 minutes daily.

However, teenagers need the support of their parents to manage their weight. They cannot do it alone, says Dr Ganguly. “It is difficult for a teenager to lose weight if his or her own parents are also struggling with weight issues,” she adds.

Parents can help in the following ways:

  • They can be good role models, leading an active lifestyle and having a balanced diet to positively influence their teenager.
  • They can look for fitness classes, gym membership and trainer support and help with logistics such as transport.
  • They can help their teenager by stocking the house with nutritious food and keeping unhealthy sugar-laden, fatty snacks and drinks out.
  • They can be encouraging and emotionally supportive, helping teenagers feel good about themselves by developing their natural talents and giving them positive reinforcement.

“A teenager who feels good, secure and confident is better able to tackle a weight issue,” says Dr Ganguly.

Ref: S13