Factors contributing to the teen weight epidemic

In the United States, 65 percent of adults are overweight and 30 percent are obese, while 30 percent of adolescents are overweight and 15 to 22 percent are obese.

Factors contributing to the teen weight epidemic 

by Dr. James McClernan — 

On a daily basis, the media remind us of the continual increase in the number of adults and children who are overweight and obese. In the United States, 65 percent of adults are overweight and 30 percent are obese, while 30 percent of adolescents are overweight and 15 to 22 percent are obese.

This situation greatly contributes to serious health problems for both groups. High blood pressure, diabetes, heart conditions, osteoporosis and many types of cancer are examples of the price we pay for poor diet and insufficient exercise. Chronic overweight conditions have now been officially declared a disease and a national epidemic.

Poor school lunch programs, junk-food vending machines and a lack of required physical education programs contribute to these serious and, at times, deadly health problems. Also, extra pounds carry a social stigma that negatively influences career and employment opportunities, as well as the development of talents and potentials. Although the social stigma is unfair and ridicule is never justified, they nevertheless exist.

We know that poor diets contribute to negative emotional behavior. The U.S. Navy and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration have learned from studies of their crews that foods high in “complex” carbohydrates have a calming effect on crew members, while foods high in “simple” carbohydrates tend to contribute to nervous anxieties.

It also has been shown that high-protein diets contribute to aggressive behaviors. Studies of football players have revealed not only more aggressive play by those on high-protein diets, but also increased short-term burnout before the end of the game.

Most overweight students have overweight parents. School lunches and vending machines may contribute to teen obesity; however, the food parents put on the table and the example they set is by far the most powerful influence. New efforts to help overweight students must include the family for long-term success to be achieved.

School faculty members are also role models who could promote healthful eating at school, but parents have a far greater responsibility and opportunity to change the situation. The challenge is to serve healthful foods your teen looks forward to eating. In addition, the lifelong love of exercise should be developed early and, hopefully, modeled by the parents.

Only three to five percent of people attempting long-term weight loss are successful. Long-term success is generally defined as maintaining the desired weight loss for five years or more. Long-term success is achieved less by diets and forced exercise than by the desire to change beliefs, values, priorities, self-awareness, self-efficacy, personality factors, and learning to “prefer” healthful exercise and healthful foods.

Some people are able to achieve long-term success through sheer determination or “will power,” but each day is often a constant struggle. Those who are able to get beyond the struggle and enjoy their new life usually have made as many mental and emotional changes as they have nutritional and exercise changes.

Food can be emotionally comforting, providing temporary physical/emotional gratification. It can also be sensual, having taste, texture, aroma and color. Since most excessive eating has to do with emotions, nurturing emotional well-being, and consistently modeling ways to stay focused and calm can help prevent teens from gaining excessive weight before they reach adulthood.


Dr. James McClernan, Ed.D., is a licensed psychologist and certified school psychologist at Palm Valley Behavioral Health in Goodyear, Ariz. He is the author of Hugs From the Refrigerator and Change Your Mind, Change Your Weight. 623-882-3364 or jmccler@aol.com.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 26, Number 4, August/September 2007.

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