Weight can be a sensitive issue for teenagers. They're at a vulnerable stage seeking acceptance from peers and at the same time trying to become independent. Parents don't want to send the wrong message for fear it could result in eating disorders. But ignoring it could put a child's health at risk. The solution may require outside help and involving the whole family.
"I've always been overweight," said Mindy Bravo, 17.
Mindy knows the pain of being an overweight child and the anguish of then becoming a heavy teen. She dropped out of high school two years ago.
"I was teased a lot, I sat alone mainly. I had very few friends," said Mindy.
But now, she's doing something about it. She's enrolled in a program called New Hope at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It's aimed at teens and their families. The goal is to change to a healthy lifestyle while building self esteem.
"We are trying to move them through this developmental place to a place where they are taking more responsibility, more accountability for their actions and choices," said Amy Phipps, RN, nurse practitioner, UIC New Hope.
Dr Chris Stahl, an adolescent specialist, says tackling weight loss has many components a pediatrician is not always adequately trained to address. That's where a program like this one can make a difference.
"We need a broader perspective identify the psychological, the activity, and the nutrition components," said Dr. Stahl.
Childhood obesity is a growing medical concern. Even the first lady has started her own campaign. But teen obesity can be an awkward issue.
"It's time to step on some toes. We have an epidemic," said psychologist Daniel Kirschenbaum
Dr. Kirschenbaum says too many times parents ignore their children's weight until it's out of control. He says forget the guilt or blame and do something. The problem is not going to go away.
"The research shows there are tremendous biological forces against weight loss," said Dr. Kirschenbaum.
Kirschenbaum runs the center for behavioral medicine in Chicago and is also the director of wellspring, a boarding school and summer camp for overweight teens. He stresses a whole family approach.
"The family has to step up learn what to do and implement. Now they might need help but I guarantee it can be done without feelings of deprivation," said Dr. Kirschenbaum.
Here are his seven steps to success: the first is medical management or seeing your pediatrician for an evaluation. If your child, no matter their age, has a body mass index that puts them in the 85 percentile and up and it's more fat than muscle that's your sign to take action.
Next, educate yourself and your teen about nutrition with the help of a specialist. Also, change your home environment. For example, have only healthy foods in the house, no TVs or computers in the bedroom and become an active family.
Next support groups. Two low costs programs he recommends are Weight Watchers or "Take Off Pounds Seriously" also known as "Tops." Steps 5 and 6 include cognitive behavior programs such as the one at UIC and Wellspring. And finally for seriously overweight teens, bariatric surgery.
Jashaun Nelson has been going to New Hope and has lost 15 pounds. She's learning healthy habits and is trying to prove she can lose even more before considering lap band surgery.
"It's not really about being small it's about being healthy," said Nelson.
Mindy has lost 54 pounds and she's now working on losing more weight, getting her GED and also helping the rest of her family become healthier.
"I will forever love the overweight Mindy 'cause she is going to make me the Mindy I will be in the future," said Mindy.
Everyone we spoke to says lifestyle programs should be just that, not a diet but a way of life. And Dr. Kirschenbaums says families should develop a healthy obsession with fitness and foods.
Also, insurance will cover some of the costs of these programs. But you have to check with your provider.
The New Hope program at UIC is facing a loss of funding because of cutbacks. Its staff is currently fighting to stay open so more teens can be helped.
University of Illinois at Chicago
Center for Behavioral Medicine and Sport Psychology
Toll Free: 866.364.0808
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