What not to say to help your teen lose weight

Parents should encourage teens to focus on healthy eating and exercise habits, not the number on the scale, the American Academy of Pediatrics says.

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If you want your teen to lose weight, the American Academy of Pediatrics has some advice: Don’t tell them that.

Doing so may raise their risk of developing unhealthy habits or even an eating disorder, the AAP states in new recommendations published online this week.

“The focus should be on a healthy lifestyle rather than on weight,” the report, which will appear in the September issue of the journal Pediatrics, reads.

About 35 percent of 12- to 19-year-olds in the U.S. are classified as overweight or obese, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, eating disorders are also a big problem. In fact, they are the third most common chronic condition in adolescents after obesity and asthma, the AAP points out. And overweight teens can be more at risk than parents might think.

Young people who lose large amounts of weight through unhealthy eating behaviors such as extreme low-calorie fad diets, purging after meals, or abuse of laxatives, can end up facing an array of health problems. Dangerous consequences can include hypothermia (lower-than-normal body temperature), bradycardia (an abnormally slow heart rate), hypotension (abnormally low blood pressure), acute pancreatitis, and gallstones.

In the new recommendations, the AAP says that commenting on weight – their appearance or the number on a scale – when talking to teens can be harmful and may even lead to these very behaviors.

“Understanding that poor body image can lead to an ED [eating disorder], parents should avoid comments about body weight and discourage dieting efforts that may inadvertently result in EDs and body dissatisfaction,” the AAP says.

To combat this, pediatricians – and parents – should focus on instilling healthy habits in teens.

Kristi King, a senior dietitian at Texas Children’s Hospital and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said that the AAP guidelines are very much in line with what she sees play out in pediatricians’ offices on a daily basis.

“I frequently find in practice that when families and/or a pediatrician is very weight-focused, the child or teen tends to become very fixated on reaching a certain weight point,” she told CBS News. “Most of the time, it is a weight point that they think sounds ‘good’ and isn’t necessarily what may actually be healthy for their height, age, activity level, etc.  This can lead to very unhealthy lifestyle habits in order for them to reach that weight point.”

In contrast, the patients she sees who tend to have the best outcomes are the ones whose families focus on overall healthy habits.

King recommends encouraging a positive body image, asking kids how they feel about their bodies, and discussing the importance of all food groups in their daily lives.

Avoid using words like “diet,” “fat,” and “goal weight.”

“Focusing on weight – even little comments such as ‘Ooh, I see a little tummy pouch there’ – can be damaging,” King said.

She offers the following tips for parents to encourage a healthy lifestyle in teens:

  • Watch your words. Kids and teens are very perceptive. If they hear parents say from an early age things like “I hate my fat thighs,” they will be more attuned to looking for the negatives in themselves. Words can leave emotional scars, so be cautious of saying things such as “you’re lazy” or “you’re fat.”
  • Aim for at least one family meal per day. If you find family dinner isn’t always feasible due to extracurricular activities or an otherwise busy schedule, aim for family breakfast. It might mean getting up a few minutes earlier, but it still accomplishes the same goals.
  • Have fruits and vegetables readily available on the counter or fridge. Leave them washed and at eye level so it’s easy for kids to grab and go. 
  • Get kids involved in the kitchen. Even if you as a parent “can’t cook,” think of this as an opportunity to learn together. Start by shopping and picking out new healthy foods to try. Get in the kitchen and try a new recipe together. Not only will you will be teaching skills, you’ll be making great memories together.
  • Take the TV out of your kids’ room. Many children and teens tend to eat and watch TV in their rooms. Taking the TV out will limit their screen time and encourage more family time.
  • Schedule physical activity as part of your family’s routine. Make walks, runs, games, bike rides, or hikes part of your weekly schedule. This sets a great example that being active is part of a healthy lifestyle.
  • Be a good role model. If you want your kid to eat their veggies that means you need to eat them, too. If you want them to exercise, they’ve got to see you doing it. 
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    Ashley Welch covers health and wellness for CBSNews.com