Help for Teenagers

*Photo taken from my book 'I Want Healthy Kids'. Photo model: Zaina AlKhaja*

This is the article that I wish I had read as a teenager. It goes out to all the teenage girls (or boys) who are confused about their weight and body image.  I know I sure was.

When you’re growing up, you don’t really think about how food is affecting your body.  In fact, as a child your parents seemed happy when you finished your food so you just kept on eating.

Then, one day, you hit puberty and your body starts to go all funny on you.  You feel awkward and strange in a grown-up body.  You notice you’re developing a belly and fat in places you never had before.

Your mother tells you it’s baby fat, but that’s not what you see in the mirror.  You look around in magazines; no one looks like you.  Then, your friends start talking about losing weight and how ‘she looks great cuz she’s thin’.

And it hits you: you need to lose weight.

But how do you do it?

I remember very clearly the summer I decided to lose weight.  I was about 18 or 19 years old. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I decided to try.

I thought ‘the less I eat, the less I’ll weigh’.  That made perfect sense.  So I started skipping dinner.  I felt lighter in the morning.  That must mean it’s working! If I skip breakfast as well, maybe I’ll lose more….

And that continued for a few weeks until I was having only one meal a day. And even that meal eventually became a salad.  And I started to lose weight.

Hunger became my friend.  It gave me a certain buzz.

But I also started getting ‘hunger headaches’.  My sleep became very light and disrupted. My face was dry and pale.  My digestion was funny and constipated…

But I didn’t care, as long as I was losing weight.

I started buying smaller and smaller sizes.  People were commenting on how I lost weight.  They were all asking me how I did it! They all wanted to do it too but didn’t know how.

Over time, I found it harder and harder to eat. The thought of having a big meal was repulsive.  I was wondering how I used to eat so much.

My day became a constant struggle between hunger and the desire to stay thin.  Part of me was dying to eat everything on the dinner table, and another part of me was disgusted and could not pick up the fork. I was afraid that eating freely would make me gain weight again.  And when people asked me why I wasn’t eating, I would give them the usual ‘I already ate’ or ‘I’ll eat later’ excuse.

What was I doing? I was trying so hard to lose weight and it seemed to be getting out of hand.

About six months and many kilograms later, my obsession faded.  I slowly I found myself eating normally again.

My weight stabilised and I was able to look back and see what it was.  I was on the verge of an eating disorder.

What are eating disorders?

An eating disorder usually occurs when there is a distorted body image.  When, in the mirror, you see a much fatter version of yourself and there is a strong desire to lose weight.  It is most common in teenage girls, but it could happen at any age and it’s becoming more common amongst boys too.

If you have an eating disorder, you would always be trying to find ways to lose weight.  Some people become anorexics, which means they gradually stop eating until they lose so much weight that it becomes a threat to their life.  Others become bulimics, where they have episodes of binge eating followed by voluntary vomiting.  Some may even become a combination of both or develop other forms of eating disorders such as bingeing, exercising obsessively or even staying strictly on a specific diet for a prolonged period of time.

Out of control

There are various possible reasons for an eating disorder. A lot of teenagers develop an eating disorder in their efforts to control their body and their surroundings. The teenage years are very unpredictable; you’re going through a lot of changes physically and mentally (and in the environment around you – school, parents, etc.) and somewhere along the way you try to exert control over what you can.

Controlling your food intake becomes a way of controlling your body (and your life).  For many, that is done on a subconscious level.  To me, that would explain the trend I see in eating disorders among perfectionists.  There is a need for control.

Other reasons could be peer pressure, a need to fit in, the media, social standards for thinness, etc.

I once overheard a conversation between a group of teenage girls who were sitting close by.  One of them was holding a small water bottle in her hand and proudly said, “This is all I’ve had today” pointing at the bottle.

The girls around her all seemed to think that it was a great thing.  They talked about how they’re limiting their food intake as well and ‘barely eating’.

Although I was much older at that time, that conversation still had an effect on me.  It took me right back in time.  It made me realise just how common eating disorders are. It made me want to do something to help.

Talking to teenagers

When I lecture teenagers, I see myself in them.  I understand where they are and how confusing things can be.

From talking to many teenagers over the past few years, I can easily tell you that this generation is just as confused as we were.

You would think that with the internet and the availability of information, teenagers would be more informed, but they’re not.  In fact, they might be even more confused because of the sheer load of information and messages they are now getting.

ALL the teenagers that I have spoken to are concerned about their weight, with very few exceptions.  They either want to lose weight, gain weight, bulk up, trim down, burn fat… you name it.

Whatever term they give it, the point is they want to somehow alter the way they currently look.  And they want to do it quickly!

Getting sound information is hard

Most of them don’t know where to go for sound information.  Schools are busy with academics.  And parents are busy making sure their kids are excelling in school and staying out of trouble.

But teenagers need to understand how to handle a growing body. They need to know that their diet affects them on a daily basis.

Junk food, red bull, and chocolates are not what you need to achieve optimum health.  Starving and skipping meals is not what will help you lose weight.  Slimfast is not a good idea before the next party. Smoking will not help you lose weight. And liposuction is not something to consider!

If you are a teenager reading this, remember that it’s normal to be confused.  I suggest you ask for help from an adult that you trust.  Try to get accurate information about what works best for you.  Do not get pressured by your peers or society.  At the end of the day, your body has its own individual uniquness and you have to give it a chance to grow into the best that it can be.

If you are a parent reading this, I strongly suggest you have a conversation about weight and body image with your teenagers.  Try to get into their mind-set; see the world from their point-of-view, no matter how different it may be from yours.  How do they feel about their body? What are they doing about it?  What messages are they getting from their peers and the media?  What messages are they getting from you?  Is there a book they can read or a course they can join to help them stay at a healthy body weight?  Find out and help because they need you.

Leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts!

***  For more health tips, sign up on my website at

To read more on kids health, have a look at my book ‘I Want Healthy Kids’ – out in both English and Arabic!


6 responses to “Help for Teenagers

  1. as always….very insightful. Thanks for sharing your personal story…mine was similar only lasted a bit longer. I share with my students as well.

  2. also important, parents need to ask themselves, how do they feel about their OWN body image? our children, especially girls, receive very mixed messages from their own mothers regarding body image, i.e. growing up with a mother who diets and starves herself. also, with so many women having breast implants and fat injected lips, what is a young woman to think regarding “acceptance” of her own body? with the media sexualizing girls at increasingly earlier ages and then watching their own mothers turn into barbie dolls, no wonder puberty and a changing body can be such a difficult and challenging time in a young woman’s life.

  3. Thank you Alia for your intersting articles and tips. I really enjoy reading them. I am mother of two teenagers ‘thin girls 18,15 yrs’ also a boy 5 yrs.they have no problems with their weight but I want to push them to eat more healthy food such as salads and fruits..I wish you can write something that I can email it to them to read rather than me lecturing which they hate to hear….

  4. thank you alia. it is a interesting topic and good to know some of the tips so that we can explain to our kids. i am a father of two, 15years and 10 years ( boys ). the elder one is fine. he is more into the sports and hence growing tall and slim. the younger one is more of relaxing character. watch Tv, eat more of chocolates, chips, sweets. he is little fatty, but i have been warning him about his fat. some times he listen. please send some interesting meals receipies for good health

  5. I’m afraid that as long as we as a society continue to idealize thin/fake/eternal youth then we will continue to have these problems. I think the best thing we can do is lead by example – eat healthy, exercise, learn to accept our bodies as they are, age gracefully…. easier said than done as we have all been affected by the warped society we live in. I have taken a couple of small steps…I stopped buying the “beauty” magazines (interestingly most people feel worse after reading them). When I see things in the media that offend me I speak up. I try to have a positive influence on the young people in my life. I’m trying not to live up to the impossible images in the media and of stars that keep looking like teenagers through plastic surgery, botox, liposuction. I actually think it’s disgusting… and WHY are we doing it?? Our society has bizarre priorities. Moving forward, much must be done to change the tide. But if we all take small steps we can change the big picture. Thanks for being part of the solution Alia 🙂

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