Your Adolescent Daughter Doesn’t Have a Weight Problem. She’s Going Through Puberty
I went to one of those puberty talks with my daughter when she was in 5th grade. I listened closely as the nurse discussed growth. There was a quick mention of different-sized bodies and something about curves, and then she was off to detail sex organs and the monthly cycle. As a registered dietitian thoroughly steeped in the subject, I felt this was yet another missed opportunity to educate parents and girls about how female bodies change and grow during puberty.
Despite the surge of books and talks about puberty over the last couple of decades, the weight gain girls experience during this time is brushed over. Consider, in contrast, how much information parents receive those early years of childhood. Those first 1,000 days starting at conception, we are told, are vital to health and well being. It is the fastest growth in a human’s life. Very few parents worry about chunky babies. In fact, research shows that parents equate a bigger baby with a healthier baby.
As the toddler years roll around, the growth of children slows way down. We see their bodies lengthen and appetites diminish (hello, throwing food and not wanting to eat!). This growth stays stable for several years until puberty. Although growth is not as fast as during infancy, the adolescent growth spurt places a close second. Plus, it lasts two times longer.
During Puberty Girls Grow Fast and Early
Here’s what parents and girls need to know: weight gain and increases in appetite are normal and to be expected during puberty. Girls go through puberty about two years before boys, starting in early adolescence (10-11 on average). Unlike boys, their fastest rate of growth occurs early in puberty. They also gain more fat than boys in preparation for their menstrual cycle. They go from gaining about 5 pounds a year before puberty, to 12-23 pounds during puberty as shown below.
Girls’ growth happens in stages as they tend to fill out before they grow up. For example, the fat they gain tends to initially gather around their middle before they develop curves, leaving some girls to feel “out of proportion” until they are done growing. This weight gain, change in body shape, and hearty appetite may wrongly lead parents and their self-conscious adolescent daughters to the conclusion that this is a problem that needs fixing.
On their website, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) puts it this way:
These young female patients, and their parents, often worry that baby fat is a harbinger of impending obesity—usually the deposition of adipose tissue (connective tissue where fat is stored) around the middle is part of normal development. The body will soon redistribute the fat from the stomach and the waist to the breasts and the hips in order to mold a womanly figure.
The Road to Body Dissatisfaction
According to a 2016 study in the Journal of Pediatrics, over half of 9-14-year-old girls desire a thinner body shape. This matters because body image plays a key role in the development of healthy habits. Girls who have a poor body image, for instance, are less likely to eat a nutritious diet or exercise and are more likely to experience problems with their emotional health. They are at higher risk for dieting, eating disorders, accelerated growth, internalizing unrealistic media images, and engaging in risky behaviors like drugs and alcohol. On the other hand, girls with a positive body image fare much better in all the aforementioned health outcomes.
Why does body image matter so much? Although there are many theories, I believe when girls feel good about their bodies, they are more likely to listen to its needs, both physically and emotionally. This type of body awareness is called interoception and it is being recognized as an important potential link between body image and healthy behaviors. But when girls view their body as a problem, they discount its signals. They tend to be less aware of hunger and fullness, what feelings are trying to tell them, or what fills them with energy.
Take dieting as an example, something approximately half of girls will attempt. Girls may try to eat less, skip breakfast, or eat only certain foods. Because they are in a growth spurt, eventually their hunger catches up with them. And the cycle of restricting and overeating begins, often lasting a lifetime. This unhealthy way of relating to food overrides internal signals of hunger and fullness, the keys to healthy growth. In fact, people who perceive themselves to be overweight are more likely to gain weight than those who don't due to weight loss attempts. A 2016 report from the AAP reviewing the evidence on obesity and eating disorder prevention states: “These findings and others suggest that dieting is counterproductive to weight management efforts. Dieting also can predispose to eating disorders.”
Don’t Be Afraid to Talk to Her About Her Body
It doesn’t help that as a solution, parents are told to avoid the topic of weight altogether. It’s true that harping on weight is not the way to go (i.e., comments about weight or encouraging girls to lose weight); but educating girls about why they gain weight is very much needed. We need to help them understand what stage of puberty they are in and what to expect throughout the process. We need to let them know they have a genetic blueprint for their body’s general frame and shape, and their time is best spent maximizing their body’s health, not trying to change their body.
To help solve the problem, I wrote My Body's Superpower: The Girls' Guide to Growing Up Healthy During Puberty for girls between the ages of 9-14. Girls learn how their body changes during the adolescent growth spurt, healthy ways to respond, and the positive “superpower” impact healthy habits have on their life. The book is comprehensive combining research on puberty, nutrition, emotional health, sleep, physical activity, intuitive/mindful eating, motivation, body image, and media literacy. It gives parents ideas on how to talk to girls and provides girls the missing information they need to understand their changing bodies. It is meant to build a foundation for lifelong health during this critical time of development.
Don’t let a poor body image start your daughter down an unhealthy road. It’s time for a different approach, one that builds strong, confident, young girls who understand their body isn’t the enemy, but the answer to a healthy and satisfying life.
My Body's Superpower
Author Maryann Jacobsen, MS, RD, is a family nutrition expert and author. She recently published My Body’s Superpower: The Girls’ Guide to Growing Up Healthy During Puberty to help girls understand and nurture their growing bodies. You can find out more about her work at MaryannJacobsen.com