Teenagers who choose to diet fall into two categories: health conscious and weight conscious. Each has their own challenges for parents and kids, but recognizing the underlying motivation is important.
Health-conscious teenagers tend to be near normal weight to begin with or may even be on the thin side. They are often athletic and high academic performers. Teenagers who are motivated to eat healthy while still in middle or high school often have high expectations for their own performance in every aspect of life and see changing their diet as another way to be in control of their body and health.
When done well, in a balanced and flexible way, these teenagers are choosing to change their eating habits for the better. Most aren’t primarily motivated to lose weight but rather are interested in becoming healthier.
Most health-conscious teens are opting for a vegetarian or plant-based diet. Healthy vegetarian diets are great when done well. Eating a plant-based diet is fantastic for all of us! Protein is in abundance in grains, veggies, and non-meat sources, so dairy is optional for vegetarians. Parents worry too much about the protein issue for vegetarian teens. I’ve yet to meet a grain-eating vegetarian who is protein deficient. The challenge for teenager vegetarians is to actually eat veggies! Most are just meat avoiders and replace meat with carbs. In order to do a vegetarian diet well, eating mostly veggies and fruits is a must. A multivitamin with iron is also a great idea as is a Vitamin D supplement (at least here in the cloudy Midwest).
Parents can support teenagers interested in a plant-based or vegetarian diet by sending them YouTube videos or getting them short books that are designed for teenagers. Content that is designed to show how easy it is and great the benefits of this way of eating are best. Avoid content that shows the hurdles. Encouragement is the way to go! Send just one or two, as too many will seem overbearing to your teenager who may want to do this on their own.
Health-conscious teenagers sometimes go a little off the deep end though. And because of their tendency to be high achievers, they can get caught up in the specifics of the program. Eating only certain foods, having no flexibility when few options exist, and going without food rather than bend.
If a health-conscious teen has a dual desire to lose weight, the rigidity can get even more extreme, especially if the teen has a compulsive personality. Food restriction and avoidance can result in a sense of control and power that fuels more of the same, especially if weight loss ensues. Behaviors like these are a slippery slope on the path to an eating disorder.
It’s tempting to “remind” teenagers to eat or to ask about protein sources or meal plans when your independent eater is preparing her own meals. Instead, try hard to ask what advice or help they need to succeed. Have your teenager give you a grocery list, prep food together, avoid giving opinions, and instead give praise. Reminders and advice will drive your teenager away and will not get them to eat differently.
Weight-conscious teens tend to consider other diets when they are in the mood to change their appearance. Like most adults, they wax and wane in their motivation to stick to a diet/eating plan. Most overweight kids have at least one parent who is overweight and it helps for the whole family to adjust their eating habits when an overweight teenager is ready to change their eating habits.
Some diets (e.g., keto, paleo, Mediterranean, vegetarian) focus solely on what a teen is eating. However, options like the Beaumont Healthy Kids Programs and Weight Watchers focus on teaching behaviors to promote and improve lifelong health.
So what is the best option for an overweight teen? To be frank, any of these will result in weight loss and are healthy enough for a teen to follow. Being able to stick to the plan is the biggest challenge. Let your teen choose the one that they think is the best fit for long term success. For example, keto and paleo may be difficult for teenagers to maintain due to the lack of carbs given the carb-laden foods they will be in constant contact with, but if that is the diet your teenager feels is the best fit then let him go for it.
One of the biggest challenges for parents is to support their teenager without managing the diet. Teens who express an interest in changing their eating habits need your help to grocery shop, learn to prepare foods, and to cheer them on when things are going well. Ask them what you can do to support them and then listen to what they say. Teenagers are not looking for advice, reminders or coaching. The more you do that, the more resentment and attitude you’ll get from your teen.
Until a teenager is self-motivated, your efforts to help will only breed resentment. Instead, prepare healthy foods at home and don’t mention eating habits with your teenager. They know what healthy eating looks like and know full well what they are doing isn’t healthy. Your reminders won’t change their behaviors, and if they are overweight, will only make them feel worse about themselves. Even if you are trying to approach the subject from a health perspective, teenagers who are overweight interpret this as another message about how fat they are and feel worse about who they are. When your teenager is finally ready, don’t go overboard, remember they are just like the rest of us — interested in dieting a week or two and then fall off the wagon. Stay patient, loving and let your teenager lead the way.
Parents who are concerned about their teens’ diet choices, behaviors around eating (like restrictive eating), or who recognize that a doctor would be a good person to discuss diet and eating choices, should make an appointment with their pediatrician. We are a great resource for parents and for teenagers who are changing their eating habits—hopefully for the better!