Is It OK for Teens to be Dieting?

In her weekly column, Bradford West Gwillimbury licensed nutritionist Nonie De Long discusses diets for teens.

Dear Nonie,

A friend directed me to your column and I’ve been enjoying it. I looked back through the archives and can’t see one on weight loss. It’s that time of year all the ladies in the office are dieting and I am struggling because I’m dieting with my daughter this year. She’s 15 and she’s really gotten concerned about her weight. She’s put on about 50lbs in the past year alone and I know she struggles with her self image. I have two questions. Is it healthy for a teen that is overweight to diet? If so, is there any diet plan that is safer for teens?

Thank you,

Worried Mom

Dear Worried Mom,

Your question is bound to be relevant to a number of readers, so thank you for writing in to share it. Teen obesity is on the rise - exponentially. According to The Childhood Obesity Foundation, “Childhood overweight and obesity has been rising steadily in Canada in recent decades.  Between 1978/79 and 2004, the combined prevalence of overweight and obesity among those aged two to 17 years increased from 23 per cent to 34 percent...Most adolescents do not outgrow this problem and in fact, many continue to gain excess weight. If current trends continue, by 2040, up to 70% of adults aged 40 years will be either overweight or obese.”

It goes on to state that obesity is related to diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke, and early death and costs the healthcare system between 4 and 7 billion dollars a year. It suggests that a preventative approach in childhood is the best approach. And I would have to agree. As such, no, it’s not unhealthy for your daughter to diet! I know there are negative connotations with dieting, but it’s the equivalent of saying it’s unhealthy for a child to learn to take care of themselves. A healthy diet will set her up for a better chance at a happy, healthy life and these are the years when you still have influence to help her!

But what does healthy dieting look like for youth? Obviously fads and restrictive models are not the best approach, since we don’t want youth to fear foods or develop disordered eating. We also don’t want them to develop deficiencies. One of the programs that the same childhood obesity foundation has endorsed is a 5,2,1,0 program. It looks like this:

5: Eat five servings of veg and/ or fruit per day. 2: Limit screen time to two hours or less per day. 1: Get one hour or more of physical activity per day. 0: Don’t consume any sugary drinks. This should include any drinks with artificial sweetener, also.

To this I would add an eight. I would say make sure she is getting eight hours or more of sleep per night. When we don’t sleep enough we naturally feel sluggish and have lower levels of self control. We reach for sugary or carby convenience foods (often caffeine laden) to give us a quick boost. These foods further dysregulate sleep - especially when eaten late in the day. And, when we eat them early in the day they set us up for blood sugar swings all day! We also know that the hormones that regulate sleep are connected to the hormones that regulate hunger and satiety. So teach your daughter when she is feely snacky to ask herself, “Am I actually hungry right now or just tired?” If she is tired, she can ask herself, “Can I have a nap or go to bed early?” It may seem simplistic, but this self check-in really works.  

Screen time and blue lights at night (screens are usually preset to blue but you can change this in the settings) will also disrupt sleep hormones. In sensitive people it will be harder to fall asleep if exposed to blue light before bed. Some simple hacks to help are create a bedtime routine of shutting screens off more than 30 minutes before sleep and getting soft white lights for use in lamps during that time, with either music or reading or showering or a restful exercise like yoga or journalling for 30 minutes before bedtime. Just the routine itself can promote deeper sleep and deeper sleep helps with feeling rested, which in turn fights cravings the next day. 

Being active is essential for overall health, not just weight, so incorporating exercise that you could do together would be good for both of you. However, there is a myth that exercise really impacts weight loss, and that it needs to be intense and prolonged to be effective. This has been shown to be untrue, and actually, when people do not have great muscle tone and there is a burden on the joints due to excess weight, high impact cardio like running can lead to repetitive injuries. Walking, swimming, biking, hiking, dancing and pilates are all great places to start. Many videos use small weights or resistance bands with functional exercises to increase the intensity and these can be done at home together without the need for expensive equipment. And HIIT training has been gaining popularity because it's a very short duration of intensity with periods of recovery built in, so anyone can do it. This could be done with a stationary bike or skipping ropes even. For a great video on a short high intensity workout almost anyone can do to maximize exercise benefit in nine minutes a day, go here

Although exercise is great for your health, your weight loss results are determined primarily by diet. I suggest making a big enough commitment that no junk comes into the house except one night a week, during which you can have one special treat each. I would suggest making sure there is no leftover. If there are other people in the house that want treats I would suggest it’s not different than family members drinking in front of a recovering alcoholic. It’s really best to keep junk from coming into the home to tempt you. And if you can keep your treat to a limited portion, that would be even better. For example, on Fridays I will have a bag of chips after dinner. Or I can have a donut or cupcake after dinner. Eating a dozen donuts because the nutritionist told you that you can have a cheat night may not give you the results you’re seeking :)

One favourite ritual my son and I developed on Fridays (because who wants to cook on Friday?) was to do a crudite and charcuterie board with nice pate and meats or seafood or eggs, pickles, fruit, and fancy cheeses. We would get a nice gluten free loaf or rice crackers and nuts. 

We’d do a nice dip or oil and vinegar. We put our kombucha in wine glasses. Beside this we might have some dark chocolate or a gluten free baked good or sugar free ice cream. This kept us on track with our diet but also gave me a night off cooking and gave us snack type foods for movie night, without resorting to junk. Treats don’t have to be sweet to be enjoyable! 

For regular meals the best thing you can do is ensure all meals are balanced and homemade. For breakfast I suggest a protein smoothie. If you want to eat some starch or beans or grain, I recommend eating that at lunch in a salad bowl, but limiting it to 1 cup and keeping it to: whole grain quinoa, parboiled brown rice, barley, job’s tears, lentils, beans, sweet potato, or squash. These are more nutritious, lower glycemic, and less inflammatory than other grains. Lunch should also contain a protein and some veggies with optional fruit to be balanced. 

For dinners I recommend a protein and one or two cooked veg, with a side salad and condiment. I do not recommend eating grains or much starch at dinner, as the best time for that is lunch so you have time to burn it off. And I do not recommend snacking or snack foods when dieting except on cheat night. The body becomes used to eating at specific times very quickly and adapts. So although it may be uncomfortable to eat only at mealtimes for the first week, the body adapts quite quickly and the hunger sensation goes away. 

I hope this gives you a good starting point. This is a very diverse and easy diet template for anyone looking for an easy entry into healthful eating. 

The exception to this rule is those that have metabolic / hormonal or mood imbalances. When weight loss is resistant despite a diet like this it’s essential to get tested for deficiencies and intolerances and work with a professional to address the underlying hormonal issues. But that’s typically not the case with a teen and they usually respond well to this type of program. As women age, though, hormonal imbalances and food intolerances often make weight loss harder. Thyroid issues, menopause, diabetes, mood disorders, post partum, poly cystic ovarian and breast syndrome, and long term stress all develop in a climate of metabolic mayhem that can make weight loss and self control harder. For this reason I have developed a 90 day mood and metabolism reset program that incorporates testing to customize the recommendations according to client need. To my knowledge, it’s the only program of its kind.

Thank you, worried mom, for your question. I hope you feel empowered now with some ways to start and that you and your daughter find them helpful. As always, if readers have their own health questions, I welcome them. Just send me an email. And if you’re looking for more specific health information check out my website and sign up for my free newsletter at Upcoming events are posted in the newsletter, as well as delicious recipes that are guaranteed to be guilt and gluten-free!

Namaste!  Nonie Nutritionista

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Copyright 2016 Nonie De Long.