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Simple strategies spur teenage weight loss

Published February 13. 2010 09:00AM

According to the writing great F. Scott Fitzgerald, last week's column required you to possess "first-rate intelligence," a characteristic he feels you need to honestly assess two extremely different ideas simultaneously.

The feast-or-famine diet, a pattern of following days where you eat 25 percent of your required calories with days where you eat without restrictions, couldn't be any more different than the eating pattern I normally propose: to consume six to eight smaller meals that are high in protein and complex carbohydrates and low in fat and simple carbohydrates throughout the day every day.

While I still believe the second strategy is best for those who seek optimal health and fitness, for many the number-one dietary priority is simply losing enough excess weight to keep weight-related diseases, primarily diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers, at bay. Since mainstream diets have done little to reduce the rate of overweight American adults recently after ascending from one out of four to two out of three in only 30 years, that rate has held steady for a half dozen a more radical approach may be needed.

For teenagers, fortunately, such radical health strategies don't seem necessary. In fact, according to a study published in the December issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, it's the more moderate measures that seem to work best to spur on teenage weight loss.

The research surveyed 130 teenagers. Slightly less than half had been successful in their attempt to lose weight; slightly more than half had not.

The researchers found the teenagers' responses fell into one of four categories healthy weight control behaviors, unhealthy weight control behaviors, extreme dietary changes, and structured dietary behaviors and that a higher percentage of those surveyed who lost weight used six or more healthy weight control behaviors. Prominent on this list were simple measures such as drinking more water and less soda, eating more fruits and vegetables and less high-fat and junk food, and increasing the amount exercise and varying the type.

Only a few teenagers reported success using extreme dietary changes, like fasting or following the Atkins diet, or structured dietary behaviors, like weighing and recording foods consumed or working with a nutritionist or other healthcare professional.

Strangely enough, the biggest variation between the weight losers and the diet failures occurred in the frequency with which they did one very simple thing: weigh themselves. According to the lead author of the study, Kerri Boutelle, who works in the departments of pediatrics and psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, "the largest percentage of adolescents who lost weight reported weighing themselves on a weekly basis, while the largest percentage of adolescents who did not lose weight reported weighing themselves less than monthly."

Another simple thing teens can do that helps weight loss is to reduce their amount of time in front of a television. A study published in the December issue of Archives of Internal Medicine and led by Dr. Jennifer Otten from the University of Vermont found that overweight and obese adult subjects who cut their viewing time in half also went into caloric deficit.

In other words, they burned more calories than they consumed and began losing weight.

While there have been no studies specifically done with teenagers that has found the same, a few have linked reduced viewing time with reduced caloric consumption, and it would stand to reason that a teen's physical activity level should increase if he or she reduces television viewing by five or 10 or more hours a week.

A final related study puts a simple thing that helps teens lose weight in the hands of one specific group of adults: school administrators. This study, published in the December issue of Health Education & Behavior, found that eliminating junk food in schools does not cause middle schoolers to eat more of the bad stuff at home or at convenience food stores but actually reduces total consumption altogether.

Researchers followed three middle schools in Connecticut that began following the eventual state-mandated, no-junk-food-in-school rule with three that had not. What lead study author Marlene Schwartz, Ph.D., deputy director at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, found was that "when you take soda and high-fat snacks out of schools, students did not compensate at home. Instead, they ate better at school and no worse at home."

Schwartz went on to say that because it is so easy for kids to obtain unhealthy foods yet relatively difficult for them to obtain healthy ones, "schools need to be a safe haven for children [and] sell healthy foods children need to eat more of, not the unhealthy foods we tell children to limit."

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