Weight Gain in Puberty: Is It Normal and Healthy or Something Else?
Written By Erica Leon, MS, RDN, CEDRD, CDN
Certified Eating Disorder Registered Dietitian and Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor
Edited By Lindsey Reinstrom and Laura Cipullo, RD, CDE, CEDRD
It could have been yesterday that “Miss Chris,” my ballet teacher at age ten, told me—in front of the entire class—to “stop eating so many cakes and cookies.” She said that I was a promising dancer and I simply must “slim down.” This confused me because I ate normally and didn’t really have so many cakes and cookies!
What I did have was an earlier puberty than many of my friends. This powerful body-shaming message has stayed with me for more than forty years! Flash-forward to both my daughter’s and son’s puberty, and this dietitian/mom was well equipped to explain that in order for adolescents to develop normally, a little extra fat around the middle is essential and a normal part of growth and development.
During the middle-school years, a major growth spurt usually occurs, which can be very confusing to both kids and parents. Appetite soars in preparation of a growth spurt. Consequently, many tweens and teens get heavier before they grow taller! All parts of a child’s body change, and it is not unusual to see even a fifteen-pound weight gain over a relatively short period of time. This happens to both females and males.
When Should You Be Concerned? Is This Healthy Or …?
Your child’s healthcare provider will measure height and weight annually as part of his/her wellness visit. A measurement called a BMI (body mass index) can show weight and growth trends. The BMI can be used as one tool in noticing patterns in your child’s weight and height. Used correctly, it can help identify weight gain and potential correlation with your child’s natural range on the growth chart over the years. The growth chart may reflect a jump in weight range but not height in this prepubescent phase. Now, it is your job as a parent to determine if this is necessary weight gain in preparation of puberty or if the weight gain is a result of your preadolescent’s habits and/or behaviors. For example, if your daughter or son reports eating due to an increase in appetite, you can surmise that this is puberty related. However, if you notice that your tween eats when procrastinating, studying, or when he/she eats with friends even after a family dinner, this may reflect behavioral eating. Or, if your tween eats every time he/she is sad or stressed with homework, this may indicate eating for emotional reasons and not as a physical response to increase energy needs for puberty. So, if it is a true physical need, let your child enjoy his/her body and help prep him/her for more changes while experiencing puberty. If you observe a trend of behavioral and emotional eating, especially of foods low on nutrient density, you may want to have a calm and neutral conversation about self-care, coping skills, and eating for physical reasons.
If you still have concerns about your tween’s proper growth and development, it may be worth talking to his/her physician or a registered dietitian who specializes in pediatric nutrition and intuitive eating. If you are worried that any recent changes in your household could be contributing factors to less-healthy eating behaviors, it might be helpful to consult with a mental health professional trained in disordered eating and adolescents about your concerns.
How you communicate about body and food choices with your tween or teen can have a significant impact on his/her self-esteem and future relationship with his/her body and food!
Strategies That Are NOT Helpful:
1) Do not talk about your teen’s eating habits ALL OF THE TIME.
2) Do not nag or preach to simply “eat less.”
3) Do not put your preteen or teen on a diet.
4) Do not bribe or reward your child with food.
5) Do not reward or comment on weight loss/weight gain.
6) Do not weigh your daughter/son.
7) Do not reject your child for any changes in their natural body weight.
These strategies can lead a vulnerable child towards disordered eating and poor body image. When parents try to restrict their child’s food intake rather than teaching him/her to listen to levels of hunger and fullness, it usually backfires! Often kids with restricted diets end up eating secretly and eat larger quantities of food than their body needs, which can lead to weight gain.
Strategies That Are Helpful:
1) Do not panic! Explain calmly that weight gain is normal before and during puberty.
2) Help your child to identify if a dramatic change in body weight is related to:
- Something else such as emotional eating due to school stress
- Behavioral eating when with friends after school
- Less physical activity than usual
3) Focus on healthy habits such as recognizing hunger and fullness, rather than focusing on external numbers such as body weight.
4) Lead by example and be a positive role model for healthy eating and exercising.
5) If your child is gaining weight due to emotional eating, help your child to develop coping skills, healthy ways to express their emotions, and provide a listening ear.
6) Prepare home-cooked meals and have family dinners as often as possible.
7) Keep your pantry and refrigerator stocked with “every day foods” that are nutrient dense, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, fish, and naturally lower-fat dairy products.
8) Help your tween or teen learn how to eat a variety of foods without labeling any foods as “good or bad.”
9) Help your tween or teen learn to differentiate between eating foods for fuel versus eating foods for fun.
10) Do explain that people naturally come in all shapes and sizes.
11) Teach honor and respect to our body by ways of self-care.
12) Fuel your body with nutrient-dense foods the majority of the time and less nutrient-dense foods some of the time.
I am amazed that I still remember my ballet teacher embarrassing me in front of my peers, despite the fact that I was at a healthy body weight for my stage of puberty. Whether your child is gaining weight in preparation of puberty, by emotional/behavioral eating, or through problems with regulating his/her sense of hunger and fullness, please make home a safe haven of love and support. Offer hope and guidance, and, of course, speak to a health professional about how you as a family can best support your child.