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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. 🙂