NEW BRUNSWICK — Obesity in adolescents and teenagers is a serious disease that can be controlled through common sense and realistic goal setting, according to physicians at Saint Peter’s University Hospital. If left untreated, obesity presents life-threatening risks that will continue into adulthood.
“The obesity epidemic may have slowed, but millions of adolescents and teens continue to battle the disease,” said Susan R. Brill, M.D., director of adolescent medicine at Saint Peter’s University Hospital. “Parents are mistaken that their children will grow out of this or that there are not serious repercussions. But obesity can be effectively controlled through commonsense measures, from medical treatment to proper food choices and increased exercise.”
The terms overweight and obese are used to describe a weight that is greater than what is considered healthy for a certain height, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Obesity is measured by body mass index (BMI), the relationship of weight to height. For children, adolescents and teenagers, a BMI value at or above the 85th percentile of children that age and gender is considered overweight. A BMI at or above the 95th percentile is considered obese.
There are a variety of factors that contribute to obesity. Physical inactivity and the consumption of junk food are two contributors. Some people may have a genetic predisposition. A teenager’s environment, culture and socioeconomic status can all play a role. However, the excess weight that a teenager is carrying can significantly affect his or her health.
Medical Support Is Important
Obese teenagers are at risk for medical complications from Type II diabetes to asthma, heart disease, kidney disease and sleep problems, according to Dr. Brill.
“That’s why kids who are overweight should be evaluated by a physician,” she said. “A physician can help to control obesity-related symptoms such as high cholesterol. Some of these conditions, like glucose intolerance, can be reversed.”
The first visit generally is for information gathering. Subsequent visits are scheduled every two to three months to check progress and set new short-term goals.
When she sees evidence of disease, Dr. Brill refers patients and their families to specialists from cardiologists to sleep apnea physicians to nutritionists. She also counsels them on lifestyle changes from eating right to exercising. She does not advocate surgery or weight loss medication for teens, as neither has a proven track record in this age group.
“It is important to measure success in the right way,” noted Dr. Brill. “I sometimes see patients who are gaining 20 pounds a year. Through our program, we’ve kept them from gaining more weight. I’ve also had patients who had cholesterol that was through the roof. Now it’s under control. Maybe there are patients who couldn’t climb the stairs without huffing or puffing. Now they’re healthy and fit. These are success stories.”
Obesity Is a Family Problem
In 80 to 90 percent of the cases that Dr. Brill sees, overweight teens have overweight parents and siblings.
“In these cases, I’m not just treating the patient,” she noted. “I’m educating the family on what to eat and how to exercise. If the family is not willing to support their overweight teen, there is little chance of success.”
The greatest challenge in treating teen obesity is to keep patients motivated, acknowledged Dr. Brill. “That’s why follow-up is so important. I’ll also refer to clinicians who can help with motivation. They can also address problems of low self-esteem and bullying, which overweight teens often encounter.”
Tips for Parents and Families
What can you do to help prevent, or turn around, teen obesity? Try these strategies.
1. Encourage healthy eating habits. Provide plenty of vegetables, fruits and whole-grain foods. Include low-fat or nonfat milk or dairy products. Choose lean meats, poultry, fish, lentils and beans for protein. Serve reasonably sized portions. Encourage your family to drink water and limit sugar-sweetened beverages.
2. Schedule regular mealtimes. Your teenager can more appropriately plan snacks around a routine of regularly scheduled breakfast, lunch and dinner.
3. Limit dining out. There are too many high calorie, fat-laden choices on a typical restaurant menu. When you do eat out, choose a place where you can make healthy choices.
4. Brown-bag it. This often is a healthier alternative to a school cafeteria lunch.
5. Help teens stay active. Build regular exercise into your teen’s schedule. Swimming, dancing, walking or playing sports will burn calories. Limit sedentary time to two hours a day.
6. Keep it “all in the family.” Try new activities together as a family. Stage a sporting competition. Prepare a healthy snack. Find physical activities in your local area from hiking to canoeing and more.
7. Walk it off. Lead by example. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Get off the bus one stop earlier. Park in the farthest part of the lot. Show how your teen can incorporate physical fitness into his or her daily life.
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