Young Men's Health

Healthy Weight Gain for Teens:

A Guide for Parents

 

Some teenagers have difficulty keeping up with the energy needs of their bodies and may be underweight. The reason for this may be that they are growing taller, exercising a lot with sports, or they might simply have a high metabolism (the way our body burns food and calorie energy). Growing during the teen years requires more food energy than at other times of life. Some teens grow at a different pace than their siblings or friends, and each teen will experience different periods of fluctuations in their weight. Your teen's health care provider may have suggested that your teen gain weight. This guide was created to give you some ideas to help your teen get to a healthier weight, feel energized, and well.

This material is intended to help parents of teens who do not suffer from an eating disorder.

What are the medical complications of my teen being underweight?

A teen who is underweight may not be getting balanced nutrition. He may not be getting enough vitamins, minerals (such as iron and calcium), protein, or dietary fat for a healthy body, or calcium and vitamin D to make strong bones.

 

What should my teen add to increase energy and calories to meals and snacks?

There are simple and tasty ingredients that can be added to meals and snacks to help with weight gain. Here are some ideas:

How quickly should my teen gain weight?

Usually 1-2 pounds per week is a safe and healthy weight gain goal. Most people do not gain exactly the same amount of weight per week. As long as the overall trend during the course of several weeks to a month is weight gain, your teen is moving in the right direction. His medical team will let you know if the pace is too slow.

 

Should I check my teen's weight at home?

It is usually a better idea to have your teen's health care provider or nutritionist check his weight at clinic appointments. Checking weight too frequently at home can be frustrating for everyone, especially if the weight isn't going up. By having his weight checked in the office, the same scale is used and accuracy is ensured. His medical team will let you know how often he needs to return for weight checks and whether it is necessary to check his weight at home.

 

Can my teen gain weight if he is a vegetarian?

Yes. Teens can gain weight if they follow a vegetarian diet. Most vegetarian diets are naturally lower in calories, because the focus is on eating more fruits, vegetables, and non-meat protein foods. However, by following the tips in this guide, your teen can gain weight and still make healthy vegetarian meal choices.

 

Does my teen need special vitamins or mineral supplements?

A standard over-the-counter multivitamin with iron is a good idea for teens; these vitamins often provide the right amount of vitamin D, too. The generic store brand is usually the same as the brand name, and it is often less expensive. If your teen is eating enough calcium containing foods (3 to 4 servings of dairy proteins/day such as milk, yogurt and cheese), he probably does not need to take a calcium supplement. In some cases, his medical team may prescribe a specific supplement, based on his body's needs.

 

Are nutritional supplements helpful?

Supplements are products that are designed to help people gain weight. For example; liquid shakes include Boost®, Boost Plus®, Ensure®, Ensure Plus®, or any generic version of these. Supplements may be useful if weight gain is not happening quickly enough after food portions are increased, high calorie fluids are introduced, and snacks plans have been in place for several weeks. Your teen's health care provider will let you know if he needs to take supplements.

 

What should I do if my teen refuses to eat more?

Try to be patient. Sometimes it takes a while for teens to get on board with their new eating routine. Look at each addition as an accomplishment. You will see progress over time. A counselor or nutritionist can help your teen if he is struggling with finishing the increased portion sizes or if he is having trouble making dietary changes.

 

What if my teen compares his eating patterns to other family members?

It is important to encourage your teen to avoid comparing his eating style with other family members or his friends. In order to gain weight, he will likely be eating more frequently and consuming larger portions than others. It is important that your teen understand that everyone has different nutritional needs. At this time, it is necessary for your teen to eat differently for his overall health and height growth.

 

Do I need to make special meals for my teen?

No, but it will be helpful if you plan meals and snacks in advance. Include your teen when selecting food and have him help with grocery shopping and food preparation if his schedule permits. At meals, select recipes that are easily modified. In some cases, you may be able to prepare two versions of a meal, for example: macaroni and cheese with whole milk and regular cheese, and macaroni and cheese made with low-fat milk and cheese for other members of the family. Remember, this is likely a temporary situation and you will not always have to make modifications.

 

Should I worry about reading food labels?

Reading labels on food products is a good habit to adopt. This practice will help you identify health claims and the true nutritional value of food items. Compare this information when selecting foods while grocery shopping. Nutrition fact sheets are usually found above fresh produce in grocery stores and some stores have their own website which lists all products and nutritional information. You can also check out the nutritional information of your teen's favorite fast food online. Simply use the internet search engine to locate the restaurant and click on "nutritional information". When shopping, use food labels to help you select calorie rich items. Look at protein, calcium, iron, dietary fat, and other nutrition information when making choices. Be sure to look at portion information as well.

 

Should my teen meet with any specialists?

A nutritionist (Registered Dietitian) who specializes in working with teens is a great addition to the treatment team. The nutritionist will make an individualized plan for your teen, taking the whole family into account. Your teen will learn specific ways to get the nutrition in that he needs to reach a healthier weight. Sometimes one visit is all that is necessary to get on track. In other cases, follow-up visits are required until weight gain and healthy goals are accomplished. Your teen's nutritionist will set the pace for how often they meet, once a month, every other week or weekly.

 

A mental health counselor or therapist who specializes in working with teens may be helpful with goal setting and providing help with any anxiety related to food and health.

 

What are the best fluids to drink?

Energy or calorie-containing fluids include: whole milk, juice, smoothies, milk shakes, Carnation Instant Breakfast® powdered milk, or regular soda (for a treat). Avoid calorie free or low calorie drinks such as diet soda, Crystal Lite®, or diet flavored seltzer water. Your teen should drink at least 8 ounces of calorie fluids with each meal and snack.

 

What about protein bars?

Protein bars are another type of supplement. They come in many different brands and flavors. Bars that have a balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fat are okay to have as a snack or part of a snack. Avoid bars that are extremely high in any one nutrient.

 

Are there any foods or fluids my teen should avoid?

Certain foods and drinks that lessen appetite and those with no nutritional value should be avoided. Encourage your teen to omit or decrease his consumption of caffeine and caffeine containing products.

 

Examples of caffeine containing products to avoid are:

Other foods to avoid:

How do I make sure my teen doesn't gain too much weight and develop an overweight problem?

Your teen's health care provider will be checking his weight periodically. When weight maintenance is appropriate, you will be informed. Simply altering some ingredients (returning to reduced fat dairy instead of whole fat dairy, or decreasing the number of servings of fruit juices or other high calorie drinks) will help to reduce the amount of daily calories if necessary. Working with a nutritionist can help with the transition to weight maintenance. It is very important to focus on a positive health and energy level, instead of over emphasizing the numbers on the scale. Remember, young teens are growing and gaining height, which requires an increase in body weight that is consistent with their height and age.

 

Helpful Hints:

Be sure that food and nutrition doesn't take up all your time and thoughts. Thinking and talking about good nutrition is key when trying to encourage weight gain but remember to have discussions about school, sports, current events, and feelings with your teen.

 

Written by the CYWH and YMH Staff at Boston Children's Hospital

 

Updated: 10/14/2010

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