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Teens’ Battle of the Bulge
The Real Impact of Obesity on Young People
An article from David R. Smith at

According to medical data, almost 1 in 5 of today’s young people are obese. In addition to the increased health risks of heart disease and diabetes, many overweight kids are also impacted by depression and bullying. No, not being bullied… bullying. In other words, I don’t feel good about myself, so I’m going to beat the snot out of Jacob.

Health problems, mental problems, social problems…that’s a lot of weight for a kid to carry around, on their waists…and their shoulders.

A Big Problem…Literally
The latest studies show that much of America has a weight problem. According to the Center for Disease Control, “there has been a dramatic increase in obesity in the United States” during the last 20 years. In fact, these days, over one-third of American adults (33.8%) are obese. Even sadder is the fact that roughly 17% (or 12.5 million) of young people (ages 2—19 years old) are also obese.

When I last wrote about this delicate subject, the news was just as grim. But now, new studies are attaching even more risks to kids’ ballooning weight problems. For example, one report just released in The Journal of Adolescent Health shows a relationship between binge eating and depression in the lives of teen girls. (The Mayo Clinic offers this description of binge eating: “frequently consuming unusually large amounts of food.”)

Researchers discovered that young ladies who are depressed are twice as likely to binge eat than girls who are not depressed. The converse was also found to be true; teen girls who binge eat are two times more likely to become depressed than their counterparts who manage their diets. Translation: girls suffering from depression self-medicate with food, only to face shame and guilt from that decision…which then compounds their depression. This sounds like a vicious cycle. It leaves many wondering what we should focus on, the eating disorder or the depression.

We don’t have to look very far to see why teenagers, girls in particular, are stressed and/or depressed. As young girls wade through the pressures of school and a culture that’s driven by sex, lots of them develop a low self-esteem, and as a result, they live recklessly. Nor do we need to have to wonder why so many kids, girls included, are overweight. With a decrease in physical activity amongst teens and the rise of dollar menus at fast food restaurants, it’s no wonder that the scales are beginning to tip.

But depression isn’t the only difficulty attached to girls’ obesity….

Another study, this one from Queen’s University, shows that girls who are obese tend to bully others on a more frequent basis than do smaller girls. Their survey of almost 2,000 students found that significantly overweight females are “three times more likely to be bullies than the slimmer girls in their class.” But ironically, the same report also showed that obese girls have a greater likelihood of being bullied than their skinny friends.

So, girls who are overweight are struggling on both sides of this fence. They just can’t seem to win. But who (or what) is to blame for this problem?

Whose Fault is the Fat?
In addition to the usual suspects accused of causing obesity, some newer culprits have been found. Findings recently released in Pediatrics claim that obesity in kids may also be tied to a poor relationship with their mother during childhood. Researchers who followed nearly 1,000 children into their teenage years found that more than 26% of those with a low mother-to-child connection went on to become obese by age 15. Interestingly, only 13% of the children who had a good relationship with their mother became obese.

While this certainly doesn’t prove cause and effect, researchers point to the possibility of a link between children’s emotional and intellectual development and how they interact with their mother at a young age.

But other folks have different ideas on why girls overeat and suffer from depression. For Demi Lovato, the high-profile Disney Channel star who was diagnosed and treated for both depression and an eating disorder, identifying the guilty party is simple: media.

After her bout with self-destruction that forced her to leave her highly successful show on the Disney Channel, “Sonny, With a Chance,” she turned on her former employer and accused them of improperly addressing eating disorders on a couple of their new shows. While watching an episode of “Shake It Up,” another hit program on the kid-targeting network, Lovato took to her Twitter account to call attention to a joke about eating disorders delivered by one of the show’s female stars. “Dear Disney Channel, EATING DISORDERS ARE NOT SOMETHING TO JOKE ABOUT” she exclaimed.

She also accused Disney of using leaner and leaner actresses in its shows. “And is it just me, or are the actresses getting THINNER AND THINNER.” Her rant evidently worked; Disney yanked two sitcom episodes for evaluation purposes, one from “Shake it Up,” and one from “So Random.”

I must admit, this news is a bit depressing. If distant mothers and a kids’ TV network can actually be blamed for adolescent obesity, even in part, then who is going to help solve the problem?

Busting Obesity
There is no shortage of professional advice or programs when it comes to weight management and weight loss, be it for adults or kids. Entire camps, centers, and programs – like this one called Wellspring in North Carolina – focus on helping kids lose weight and regain their health. Wellspring’s personnel have often noted that kids who stick to their prescribed regiment not only lose weight, but gain happiness and a new outlook on life. The kids’ confidence grows, as does their self-esteem, when they focus on getting healthy. These kinds of programs are nothing new, but this generation has found a contemporary (and helpful) inspiration in shows like “The Biggest Loser” on NBC.

Without a doubt, though, the biggest source of help for obese teens comes from a loving family and an encouraging community. That said, here are a couple of tips for helping teens who struggle with their weight.

  1. Be tactful in everything you do and say. Knowing that issues like confidence, self-esteem, and emotional health hang in the balance, we must tread very carefully in offering help. We don’t want to unwittingly add to a kids’ hurt with a careless word or deed. This doesn’t mean that we withhold honesty; it just means that we dispense it with grace. After all, that’s how Jesus did it. (See John 1:17)

  2. Offer help that actually works. Like I’ve already said, there are so many options for weight control these days that finding a suitable one for your teenagers shouldn’t be too difficult. Just make sure that whichever strategy you choose is one that helps your teen overcome their challenge without overwhelming them. At a recent checkup, my doctor told me – after consulting her Body Mass Index (BMI) chart – that I was supposed to weigh 180lbs. I laughed out loud! I’m 6’3” and haven’t weighed 180 since the 7th grade when I played on the offensive line! (By the way, several of the reports linked above reference the controversial BMI.) It’s definitely got its fair share of opponents…like 56% of the football players from the NFL’s 2005 season. We need to be realistic. Set goals that are specific, but make sure they are sane ones, as well.

  3. Don’t be afraid to blend the physical with the spiritual. Since the Bible has lots to say about how we steward our bodies, we need to make sure God gets a chance to weigh in on what we weigh. The Apostle Paul called our body the temple of God’s Spirit. Let’s pray with and for our kids. Let’s definitely offer them accountability and encouragement. This may mean that we supplement our youth ministry’s staple of pizza and burgers with some health-conscious options. Furthermore, let’s teach teens how deeply our physical health impacts our spiritual health. It all ties in together in God’s masterful plan.

A kid’s problem with obesity didn’t develop overnight, and neither will its solution. As youth workers and parents, we’ll need to commit to the long haul in helping our teens battle their bulge. This way, our kids grow up…not out.

David R. Smith David R. Smith is a 15-year youth ministry veteran who helps youth workers and parents through his writing, training, and speaking. David specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. He co-authored his first book this year, Ministry By Teenagers. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.

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Comments on this post

   Dave Hamilton         2/27/2012 12:07:27 AM

Hey David! This is not the first article where I have gleaned valuable insight into Youth Culture that helps me to understand and lead young people in Australia. That 'reckless living can be a consequence of low self-esteem' totally makes sense. Thank you


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