Teens, their friends and weight

by Sari Harrar

Could your teen’s circle of friends influence her body weight and activity level? A new study says yes. Loyola University researchers have found that high school students were more likely to gain weight if they had friends who were heavier than they were. Conversely, students were more likely to get trimmer -- or gain weight at a slower pace -- if their friends were leaner than they were.

Social networks also influenced how active kids were in sports.

It’s not just that we gravitate toward people who eat or move the way we do, the researchers say. Using a statistical tool that measured how much of this healthy or unhealthy influence simply reflected this “like attracts like” phenomenon -- and how much was because friends really can influence a teen’s weight and activity level -- the researchers found something surprising.  They report that:

  • If a borderline overweight student had lean friends (average BMI 20), there was a 40% chance the student's BMI would drop in the future and a 27% chance it would increase.
  • If a borderline overweight student had obese friends (average BMI 30), there was a 15%  chance the student's BMI would decrease and a 56% chance it would increase.

The researchers say this means that programs aimed at helping teens maintain or achieve a healthy weight and to stay active may work better if they’re conducted in groups, rather than one on one.

What does this mean for parents? Teens may be more interested in healthy active fun -- like going on a hike, a walk around the block, swimming or roller skating -- if they can invite a friend. And they may be more likely to give a healthy food a try if a friend does, too. If your teen is struggling with extra pounds, these small-steps strategies from the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics can help:

Be Realistic: Make Small Changes over Time

Change what you drink and get a health kick. Switch from soft drinks to beverages with real power. Ditch the empty-calorie drinks and give your body the nutrients it needs. Drink fat-free or low-fat milk with all your meals. For zero calories and pure refreshment, you can't do better than ice-cold water.

Be Adventurous: Expand Your Tastes

Satisfy your sweet tooth with naturally delicious, nutrient-rich fruit. Slice a banana into your morning cereal, munch a bunch of grapes at lunch or have frozen yogurt topped with berries.

Lean beef is perfect for eating on the run. Enjoy a power lunch with ZIP (zinc, iron and protein) by rolling a slice of roast beef and cheese into a tortilla wrap. Grab a soft taco with beef, beans, cheese and salsa for spicy nutrition-to-go.

Going out? Order a different item at your usual stop or visit a totally new place. Chains often feature new items, like fruit and yogurts parfaits, and many fast food places now have healthier options on the menu.

Be Sensible: Enjoy All Foods, Just Don't Overdo

Breakfast is a meal that can help you make the grade at school and sports. It can also improve your attitude, rev up your metabolism and kick your day into high gear. Start the day right with cereal and fruit, a yogurt smoothie or your favorite sandwich.

Indulge your body's need for nutrients with power snacks that really count. Feed your next snack attack with half a sandwich. Try peanut butter and banana or turkey and cheese on whole-wheat bread.

Skip super-size fast-food options. A double cheeseburger, extra-large fries and super-size drink can total 1,800 calories and more than 80 grams of fat. That's nearly as much as most people need to eat in an entire day. On the other hand, a regular burger, fries and 16-ounce soft totals about 600 calories and 19 grams of fat.

Be Flexible: Balance Your Daily Choices

Planning a pizza party with friends? Enjoy every slice and then eat little lighter, lower-fat options tomorrow. While you're at it, experiment with nontraditional pizza toppings like taco meat, grilled vegetables or pineapple.

Small changes can make a big difference in calories and fat in the long run. When you are eating out, pay attention to the little things. Order items without gooey sauces, then add fat-free condiments like ketchup, mustard and salsa. Order dressing on the side and dip a forkful of salad into it, instead of pouring it on; you'll use less.