Teens and Healthy Body Image: It’s Not Just About the Pounds

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Season 4 of Extreme Weight Loss was absolutely amazing. Our contestants set records, overcame so many difficulties, and simply inspired us all. And…we had our first ever high school-aged contestant—Julianna! I must say, going through this past year with her was an eye-opening experience for me, as well as a big refresher course on what teens are dealing with on a daily basis and how it affects their weight and self worth.

Teens today, both boys and girls, are constantly bombarded with images and words telling them how they should look (runway-ready thin), what they should eat (it runs the gamut from calorie-laden to severely calorie restricted), and what they should wear, listen to, watch, do, say—pretty much anything and everything to do with their lives. To say it’s overwhelming is an understatement, for sure. And unfortunately, tweens—pre-teens—need to be included in this conversation too, because the pressure to look and be a certain way begins earlier than ever before.

Let’s be honest—where body image is concerned, the messages being sent to our kids are, more often than not, unrealistic and unattainable, and they are hearing these messages loud and clear. Look at some of these shocking stats:

  • Approximately 80% of all 10-year-old girls have dieted at least once in their lives.
  • 53% of 13-year-old girls have issues with how their bodies look, a percentage that rises to 78% when girls turn 17.
  • 40-60% of children age 6 to 12 are worried about how much they weigh, and 70% would like to slim down.

Very sobering to say the least. Both Matix and Marley fit into that last one, which wasn’t gender specific. And my heart breaks every time I receive a post from a teen who is struggling with weight and body image. It’s obvious to me that we have a huge problem on our hands because habits formed by our kids now can negatively or positively affect the rest of their lives, and some can even lead to eating disorders and a life-long unhealthy relationship with food.

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So how can teens and those who have teens within their sphere of influence (parents, family members, teachers, neighbors, friends, etc.) help each other navigate this tricky time of life? These helpful hints are for everyone.

  • Eat healthy foods. Make sure your diet (what you eat, not the restricted-calorie-to-lose-weight kind) is full of proteins, smart carbsveggies, healthy fats, and lots of water. No foods are off limits, but eat those “treat” type foods in moderation after healthy foods, and keep lots of healthy options on hand. Kids can only eat what’s available—they can’t run to the store to get the healthy foods they need.
  • Be active. 60 minutes every day is the goal, but this hour doesn’t have to be all at one time—it can be worked in throughout the day. It also doesn’t necessarily mean “go to the gym for 60 minutes.” Kids can get in activity by playing a sport, walking rather than taking a bus, taking the longer way to class, even playing games like Dance Dance Revolution or Just Dance with their friends. Anything to get them up and moving around.
  • Limit sedentary screen time. Not only is it anti-active, but it also gives you even more opportunities to be influenced by all that negative media telling you how you “should” be.
  • Get enough sleep. This becomes trickier the older you get. With homework, extracurricular and social activities, part-time jobs, and all the other things on your schedule, sleep can take a backseat to everything else. And it’s not just about the amount of sleep. One study found that teens who go to bed earlier and get up earlier were healthier.
  • It’s not about the number on the scale, it’s about getting and staying healthy. When you focus on eating healthy foods and exercising regularly, your weight will take care of itself…but most importantly, you will feel your best!
  • Remember that we are all perfectly imperfect! Accept yourself, don’t compare yourself to others, and embrace your imperfections (as I try to do!)…they’re what make you you! Everyone is different—different genes, bone and muscle structure, body shape, and so on—so comparing yourself to others is like comparing apples to oranges…there is no comparison! And if we all looked, talked, and acted the same, how boring would that be? Beyond boring in my book.
  • Be your own cheerleader. No matter how small the goal you’ve reached, celebrate every single achievement!

And here is some advice specifically for parents and others who have or will have teens in their lives:

  • Set a good example. Kids learn from what they see. If you want your teens to be healthy, then try your hardest to be healthy yourself. I know, it sounds much simpler than it is, but it’s so important!
  • Be careful of the language you use, especially around teens. No, I’m not talking about swear words. I’m talking about phrases like, “Does this make me look fat?” or “I can’t eat that, I’m really watching my calories” or “I feel so fat!”…you get my drift. Kids mirror what’s around them, and phrases like these can lead to unhealthy attitudes about food and their body image.
  • Help your tween or teen learn about their health. Many schools have dropped nutrition programs due to budgetary cuts. Help your teens know that they can come to you with health questions as well as discuss them with their family doctor. If they do have a serious weight issue, consider getting them a copy of Choose More, Lose More for Life and have them meet with their doctor to see if it can be adapted for their individual needs. (We only recommend a diet for youth that are under a doctor’s supervision). Having something they can read and reread, once they’ve left the doctor’s office,  will help them become more knowledgeable about nutrition and an excellent resource for them as they start mastering the basics of a balanced health plan.
  • Provide opportunities to “Get Moving.” When Chris was 15, his parents cleared out the living room and brought home his first weight set. It changed his life. Being in tune with your kids and looking for opportunities for them to try new sports and activities can help them find something they can become passionate about, or they may simply love the variety in activities.

If you are a teen or you know a teen who is struggling with weight issues, yes, it can be difficult for teens to get through the body image maze thrust upon them. But with the proper perspective, some healthy habits, connecting them with quality resources, and a good support system of caring adults, they will not just survive this time, but thrive during this time, and enter adulthood as healthy, happy adults. 🙂 

 


25 Comments

  1. Denise - July 23, 2015

    Thank you for your suggestions! I am struggling with a 13 year old and helping her take charge of her health. I get very frustrated as a parent and feel helpless sometimes. I really wish their were more programs for teens to help them with their weight struggles, but everything is geared towards adults.

  2. Samantha - December 7, 2014

    The goal in life should be to be strong. To have energy. To use food and exercise to fuel your mind. To improve your athleticism. If you can change your mindset to focus on the big picture, your overall appearance will reflect that. Amber Elizabeth Dodzweit is a great role model for young girls. Check her out on instagram.

  3. Lily - November 14, 2014

    This is so true. I used to diet from the age of 6 and promised myself I would never weigh more than 55 lbs when I was 7 or 8. An impossible promess to keep. The bigger I was getting, the worst my self-esteem was. And I kept dieting until the age of 17 (88 lbs). Then I realized it was not the way to live a happy life. And I worked hard on my own to change the way I see my body, accept to eat everything I wanted. And one day I found out why I always felt too fat. I remember my mom telling how fat she was and she should diet to drop few pounds. She used to do it all the time. Never happy about herself. Her weigh was perfectly fine. She wasn’t fat, she was perfectly normal. But I get used to see my body through my mom’s eyes. I understood she was sick, in depression and that was the reason of it. And I started eating everything I wanted, discovered I loved chocolate, put weigh on and got self-esteem. I’m now 20, weigh 129,8 lbs for 5,4 feet.
    Why write all of it ? To make understand people how you can destroy a child self-esteem and make her feel more preoccupied by her weigh than getting treats for being good and always wander if she is too fat and should diet again. Be careful about what you say in front of kids because this the way they’ll think ordinary life looks like, normal thoughts.

  4. katie - October 31, 2014

    Heidi,
    My name is katie and I’m 25. I had a csection back in February for my beautiful baby boy. I am now struggling to get rid of the csection tummy. I am doing a high protein low carb diet and walking 2 miles every morning. I’m scared crunches will make it worse. Do you have any tips? ?

    • Team Powell - November 1, 2014

      Congratulations on your new baby boy – that’s awesome! First of all, you’ll want to check with your doctor to see if you have diastasis recti (separated abdominal muscles). If you do, he/she can help you know how to work around this issue so it doesn’t get worse. As far as general tips, check out Chris and Heidi’s carb cycling program in their book, “Choose More, Lose More for Life.” The book contains their complete nutrition and exercise program, and it can work no matter how much weight you want to lose, or even if you just want to adopt a healthy eating and exercise plan. Learn about the nutrition basics here: http://heidipowell.net/2713/carb-cycling-101/. It’s an awesome program!

  5. Shari Starkey - September 19, 2014

    Great article. Nutrition is 80% of weightloss. Parents control what’s in the house. I have heard so many people say that it’s expensive to feed a family nutritious meals, but where there is a will there is a way. Here are some options: cut cable and go to internet based tv -the savings is anywhere from $1000-$2000 a year. You can watch EWL on HULU. Make your own laundry soap savings is $300 a year. As a parent slowly change your family’s diet. Introduce salads for dinner, remove the pop tarts and replace them with a great shake for breakfast. Be the example. Make the sacrifice for what is truly important.

  6. Misty - September 18, 2014

    I want to thank you for this..my 15 year old is 4 ft 11 in tall and found out she weighs 198 as her obese Mom that kills me I myself am 5ft 5 in and weigh 300 and it is so hard to keep it up when you sabotage yourself all the time…i now have a 10 yr old daughter who calls herself chubby and that bothers me too but at the same time my 9 year old daughter hates it when someone calls her skinny so girls with weight issues is what I live with…but it starts with me and this helps put things in perspective….thanks for that☺

  7. Amber - September 18, 2014

    Funny thing is I really didn’t have “huge” body image issues until at least high school. I’m 32 now and constantly struggle with it. Currently trying to lose weight, lost at least 20 pounds, maybe more since I don’t know exactly how much I weighed when I started, but now its getting frustrating as I’ve plateaued and can’t get over it. Even if I do manage to lose the rest of the weight I want to lose(30 pounds), and keep it off, right now I don’t know if that will make a difference in how I see myself. I truly don’t think it will.

    I do STRONGLY agree with the language thing. My mother constantly says things like “I need to get rid of my love handles,” “I need to lose this fat,” and probably others I can’t remember and she’s not overweight! Even now I cringe when I hear her say these things because it makes me worry about how she sees me, and I already worry about how everyone else sees me.

    There’s also the opposite of people trying to tell you you’re skinny enough so you don’t have to lose any more weight. I have a co-worker(sorta “friend”) who keeps saying “you’re so skinny” to me. Yes, I’ve lost weight, but I still have a ways to go and I hate hearing her say it because the way she says it makes it seem like a bad thing that I’m still trying to lose weight. I know it doesn’t matter what she thinks and I do tune her out the best I can, but its frustrating as it just sounds like she doesn’t want me to lose the weight.

  8. Tammy Brozio - September 18, 2014

    I have a 10 year old son who is overweight I am also overweight since January of this year I have lost 80 lbs carb cycling and I also join weight watchers for support , I don’t want my son to have the same horrible teen years I did just so hard to get him motivated we have changed our eating habits but can’t seem to get him off the couch!!

  9. Lori - September 18, 2014

    I have 4 children and with my 3rd one I got gestational diabetes. At that time I was told I would always have diabetes in my system but it was up to me to determine how and when it will resurface. Noone really made me aware of my son’s risks after birth. I switched pediatricians after I asked to have my son tested for diabetes and was told it’s my own insecurity that I was trying to put on him. Since 6th grade he’s been tested ever 3 months and he’s been pre with high cholesterol. I’ve always kept him in sports. But now he’s just maintaining with no weight loss. He just turned 16 and his primary dr has sent him to an endocrinologist where he is now taking a diabetic med to Lower his A1C, cholesterol is still high and he is showing signs of high blood pressure. The dr says he needs to lose weight. He has family history on both sides. My dad passed on 2006 and I got the diabetic, cholesterol and blood pressure scare. At that point I was motivated to lose all the weight for myself to get off meds and I lost over 80pds. But gradually added back half. So now I don’t know how to motivate myself yet alone my son. Dr says he is 80 pds over weight. He is in football now. But he only eats breakfast, skips lunch and after practice. He catches up. This happens on weekdays. On weekends I have to keep an eye out. Can you please offer me some guidance.

    • Team Powell - September 18, 2014

      In addition to the helpful hints in this post, one tool Chris and Heidi use with every single person they work with is to make and keep a small, simple promise to yourself every day. This tool might help you and your son get started and keep moving toward reaching your health and fitness goals. You can learn about the process here: http://heidipowell.net/8679/it-really-is-all-about-promises-2/. You can work together to make and keep your promises, and even be each other’s accountability partners. And remember, one of the most important things you can do to help your son is to be the best example you can be for him. We wish you both the best – you can do this!
      .

  10. jennifer - September 18, 2014

    Hi, I love the show and I have the book and I just cant seem to get started… im 24 and I have 2 kids and ive been over weight for along time and I dont want my kids to follow in that path. Its not easy. But my 7 year old is well starting this path…I need to change and help my kids but seems no matter what I do nothing is helping… how do I start and stay committed

  11. Danna Lockerby - September 18, 2014

    I’ve recently lost 180lbs. And in the past 2 years I’ve been exercising quite a bit. My sons are 6 & 8 and at this point, neither have weight issues. One of the very best side effects of my exercise is that my boys want to join in. Parents, this can be a really fun great way to get your kids active and spend time with them. Go on hikes, do 5k’s, play some basketball in the driveway or at the park. My boys have both run 5K’s with me….now let me clarify, when they “run” the race with me it’s means that I’m not running for a “fast time,” they walk a bit and then sprint-“race me” to a specified spot up the course and one race I carried my 6 year old about half of it on my back. But they have a blast. They love to swim with me or go on hikes. We simply don’t buy junk food anymore and my kids don’t have the option of going to the store to get it themselves yet based on their age. We also homeschool, so getting it at school isn’t an option as well. Do they complain about the healthy options? Sure sometimes but oh well.

  12. Patrik - September 18, 2014

    Perfect post!!! 🙂 Really good man Chris Powell and woman Heidi Powell 🙂 Good job ! 😉

  13. Ashley Macleod - September 18, 2014

    Hi my name is Ashley I’m 15 years old. Ever since middle school I’ve been big. I use go get bullied about my weight, they used to call me hippopotamus it wasn’t the best 8th grade year. I set out a diet plan for myself but it always ends up not working. I was doing so good working out everyday had to run on the treadmill for 60min but once school started I lost it. The working out part I have down its just the healthy foods I should eat are what struggles me. I play lots of sports so I’m always active which is good for me. But I just need help on choosing what I can and can not eat. I watch your show extreme weight loss all the time and I think how can I look like them. I weigh almost 200 pounds now and I’m only a freshmen. I want to be able to look pretty wearing a prom dress that doesn’t make me look fat. I hope you get a chance to read this your my inspiration Heidi Powell if you have any encouraging words I’d love to hear them. Thanks sincerely Ashley MacLeod

    • Claudia - September 18, 2014

      Ashley, you can do this. Start by cutting junk food like fast food, sodas, chips, etc… Drink more water, eat more veggies and fruits and protein. Chris’ book is amazing but I don’t know if you’re too young to carb cycle. Maybe it’ll have to be altered to make sure you get all the vitamins and nutrients your body needs to keep growing. It’s not easy but it’s not impossible. Believe in yourself and don’t give up on your dream 🙂

    • Jessa - September 18, 2014

      Hi Ashley,
      I know exactly where you’re coming from. I’m in my mid 20s now, and I think I’ve finally figured out how to eat healthy. But when I was in high school, I was very overweight. It made me feel like an outsider. I was always so depressed when I couldn’t shop where my friends shopped, or eat the same foods as they did. I didn’t understand that the food I was putting into my body was the reason I couldn’t lose. In high school and college I showed horses competitively. But ironically enough, as a freshman in college, I made it to Nationals. I was at my heaviest then. But I didn’t let my weight hold me back.

      I think the best piece of advice I can give you is to make small changes. Lots of small changes lead to big changes. Maybe instead of that pop-tart you had for breakfast, have some oatmeal with blueberries and an english muffin with peanut butter! Or instead of buying your lunch at school, pack your own so you know it’s full of healthy foods.

      Don’t be afraid to ask for help. After a few sprint triathlons this summer, I made the plunge and hired a coach to help me train for my first Half Ironman next summer (yes, I was inspired by Brandi’s episode). You can do anything you set your mind to. Don’t let your weight hold you back. Remember, five small changes can equal one big change :o)

    • Team Powell - September 18, 2014

      Hi Ashley! You can find everything you’ll need to know and do in Chris and Heidi’s book – this is the same program Julianna followed on the show (there’s a link to it in this post). Another key tool to achieving any goal is to make and keep small, simple promises to yourself every day. You can learn about this process here: http://heidipowell.net/8679/it-really-is-all-about-promises-2/. This is the first step Chris and Heidi take with every single person they work with, and it works! Just make one small change at a time, and make and keep one promise at a time, and you’ll be well on your way to developing healthy habits that will benefit you your entire life! And make sure to talk about this program with a parent or someone close to you, as well as your healthcare team, in case any modifications need to be made for you since you’re in your teens. You can do this! 🙂

    • Lily - November 14, 2014

      Ashley, you’re beautiful the way you are. You’re 15 years old and you’ve got your life between your hands. Dieting is not the good way to loose weigh. A diet means loose X pounds in X time. But when this time is done you’ll start eating as you were used to. What you need is change your lifestyle. It’s hard to loose weigh when you’re going to school because you spend the most of the time sitting on a chair. Ignore those bullies, there are just silly people you enjoy hurting others cause there are sad on the inside. They’ll be the outsiders in few years. You are so much better than them. If you’re strangling with the food try to not buy bad food and ask your parents to get you some healthy food. Try and give up bad food. Not completely but allow yourself to eat this kind of food only one day a week. At the beginning it’s hard but you get used to. And the time will pass and you won’t even think about that food anymore and will only want a bar of chocolate every couple of week.
      You will look pretty wearing your prom dress, no matter how much you weigh cause you are beautiful, no matter what others think, like says this song : ” I’m beautiful, no matter what they say, words can’t bring me down”.
      I’m sorry if it doesn’t help you or if you don’t understand me very well. I’m a French girl living in Ireland and I have been living there and learning English only for a year. But what I’m trying to say is mostly : believe in yourself. Keep trying. But don’t get yourself depressed you are better than people who are not trying. If you want someone to encourage you, advice you you can find me on Facebook.
      Lily Prade

  14. Lilly - September 17, 2014

    Thank you for all you do to help others.
    My son is 10 years old and weights 115 pounds, he hates sports, I have tried everything pretty much. I workout almost daily and try to set the sample for him about being healthy. His brother has been an athlete during his entire life, first soccer, then football; but he does not care; all he cares about is about electronics, it is very frustrating. He just doesnt want to be active. I dont know what to do anymore.

  15. Aine Fearon - September 17, 2014

    Im seventeen and in my last year of school in n.ireland. I started yoyo dieting when I was 11-12 and stopped when I was 14. I was overweight to begin with and just got worse. Until my mum understood that I wasn’t happy when I looked in the mirror and stopped sugar coating my weight. It was harse at the time but it did make me understand that I needed to lose weight. Although I never wanted to do it for myself. In April I started to watch extreme weight loss USA. It changed my life completely, through the show I learnt that its not the number that counts but how you feel about yourself. I decided then I wanted to lose weight not for my mum or to compete with other girls but for me. I was 178Ibs on the ninth of april and now im 123Ibs . I know its not a massive amount lost, but already im starting to love myself that bit more. Im glad that you have done a teen one. Im finding it hard still to make life changes . Im finished with yoyo I want a new healthier me. I want to love my weight not hide it . And I will I will work until I achieve a healthy weight ,when I fall ill get up stronger, I have a continually long road ahead of me but with people like you and chris out there helping people, and giving advice I know ill get through it in the end. So a major thank you for making me look at the good tiger strips in the mirror instead of the my flaws. Cause im at warrior with the unhealthy part of myself, but good always wins. Thanks for everything ,you and chris are my inspirations. Xxxx

    • Team Powell - September 17, 2014

      Hi Aine: Thank you so much for your comment! You have done an amazing job working to get healthier – you are awesome! 🙂

  16. Susan - September 17, 2014

    I wanted to let you know how much I appreciate this article! Thank you for shedding some light on a problem that is often overlooked or not paid enough attention to. I’ve recently scoured the internet looking for “realistic” resources for my 10 year old daughter, who is overweight, severely lacking self esteem and confidence. I’ve recently purchased a book that seems to be directed towards kids and we are still going through it and talking about the changes that we will be starting soon. While talking to her I realize she had tears rolling down her rosy cheeks. An emotion I didn’t expect. She’s scared. And to tell you the truth – I am too!! Unfortunately, doctors don’t seem to have the time in their practices to follow their pediatric patients that are obese. Twice we’ve been told what to cut out and how many calories she “should” have etc and sent on our way. She’s left with the feelings of “my doctor thinks I’m fat” and I know that wasn’t her doctors intention. It’s unfortunate but reality. Thanks for all your great advice and information!

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