Lighten Up: Health Tips

by Charles Platkin, PhD

Lighten Up:  

The following are a few tips from my new book, Lighten Up, specifically geared toward teens. So tear this column out and post it on your refrigerator door, and maybe it will catch their eyes.


Unless you recently inherited a fortune, you probably don’t have the money to stock the kitchen yourself. Which means it would be a huge help to get your parents involved. Here are a few surefire ways to be heard.

Sit down with your parents and have a reasoned, rational discussion about why it’s important for you to lose weight. Bring up issues that are important to them, like your health, your happiness and your confidence. Explain that you’re not asking them to change their lives; you’re just asking them to understand and support the change in yours.

Help out with shopping for healthier foods or cooking meals. If you can drive, offer to do the grocery shopping yourself (equipped with your family’s list and your own).

Don’t panic. It’s possible your parents won’t be supportive, no matter what you do. But you’ve still got options, and chances are, not everything in the pantry is disastrous. Scan your kitchen for healthy items and for Calorie Bargains. Then see if you can at least get your parents to agree to keep the fattening foods out of sight.

Here are two other alternatives if parents are not cooperative. The first is Dinner in a Box: Stock up on low-calorie frozen dinners — you can pop them in the microwave without any hassle. Another tip is to plan ahead for fast food, so that it can work to your advantage. There are always a few healthy items on the menu — and you can see all the nutrition information on the Web. So find your favorite fast-food place’s Web site and pick out a couple healthy, low-calorie items. Then, if and when the time comes that fast food is your only option — you’ll be prepared.

“Calorie Bargains” are low-cal foods that you can eat in place of the higher-calorie snacks you’re currently eating. Each bargain must be delicious, satisfying and simple. It’s very important that you like what you’re eating — that’s the key to losing weight and making it last forever. Here are a few samples, to show you how it works. Once you get the concept, make up your own CBs.

  • Skip the cheese pizza and toast a whole-wheat pita topped with light mozzarella and sauce instead.
  • Toss the brownie and enjoy a serving of fat-free chocolate pudding to satisfy your next chocolate craving.
  • Choose a regular burger with ketchup, mustard and pickles over a cheeseburger with mayo.

The idea is to find a food you really like that’s also good for you. Make a list of some of the high-calorie foods you eat often, and see if you can come up with healthy alternatives that you’re willing to change forever.

Pull out a food you’ve been snacking on today, something that comes in a package. Now find the “Nutrition Facts” panel. How many calories are in one serving? Don’t forget to check the serving size — if you had more than one serving, you’ll need to multiply out those calories.

Before you get overwhelmed by all the numbers on the label, here’s a basic rule: Calories are more important than carbs, protein or fat. The bad news is that it doesn’t take a whole lot of extra calories to pack on the pounds. The good news is that it works the other way, too. Cutting even 100 calories out of your day — using your food label as a guide — can really make a difference in your weight. So start reading the food labels before you eat and calculate just how little it takes to avoid the extra 100 calories. A small change (like using 1 tablespoon less of peanut butter) can make a big difference.

Unconscious Eating: Eating without paying attention.
Zap This Trap: No matter what else you’re doing, always stop to think about what you’re eating and whether you really want it — or whether it’s just a big waste. If snacking makes the experience sweeter or the studying easier, you don’t have to give it up — just go for the option that’s healthiest and lowest in calories: baby carrots, grape tomatoes, an orange, an apple or a small bowl filled with a measured amount of pretzels or chips. (Put the rest of the bag back in the kitchen!) If you decide ahead of time to eat only a healthy amount, you’ll be able to enjoy every bite, knowing you’re treating yourself — and your body — right.

Eating Alarm Times: Specific times of day you’re most likely to overeat.
Zap this Trap: Since you know you’re going to be tempted to overeat at certain times, have Calorie Bargain snacks at the ready. And be careful — carrots and celery might not always cut it as a replacement for ice cream, doughnuts and Doritos. So, if you normally eat chips while sitting in front of prime-time TV, make sure to come up with a variety of alternatives that’ll keep you satisfied, even on your most splurge-worthy days. For instance, try spraying a little margarine spray (e.g., I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter) on 2 to 3 cups of air-popped popcorn and add a little salt for a low-calorie way to satisfy the munchies.

Diet Busters: Foods or events that can throw a wrench in your diet routine.
Zap this Trap: The key here is preparation. Identify your top Diet-Buster moments — those circumstances, situations or events that are, and probably always have been, most difficult for you. Once you know what they are, you’ll be able to figure out how to control them. Decide beforehand what you’re going to eat and how much you’re going to have — that way you won’t be caught off guard.

There is no calorie vacation on this plan, no days off for you to just “let yourself go.” Save that for when you’re “on a diet.” This is not about dieting — it’s about making changes that will last, about better food decisions and Calorie Bargains that you can actually see yourself eating for the rest of your life. That’s how you need to think about your food choices and re-evaluate those choices to make sure they’re working for you. So focus on making the adjustments that will keep you happy — and make sure you don’t feel like you’re making huge sacrifices, because if you do, chances are they won’t last long.

Will your friends laugh if you order a slice of cheeseless pizza? Will you get teased if you go walking for exercise around your neighborhood? In the end, it will all be worth it. But if it makes the process easier, you can keep your diet private.

  • You may not want to jump rope in your driveway, but would you do it in your basement?
  • You may not be willing to order herbal tea at Starbucks, but can you deal with a skim mocha latte?
  • You may not want to order a McSalad Shaker at McDonald’s, but what about a Chicken McGrill without the bun or mayo?

I’m not talking about sweating in PE class. Take a minute to assess the physical activity you are willing to do. What fits into your lifestyle? You can always start by walking and biking — use your bike to run errands, get to school or visit a friend. Think of any parks, walking trails or bike paths that are safe and that you’d be allowed and willing to use. Then develop a plan to actually start using them. If you’re not a walker or biker, what about interactive video games that get you jumping and moving? Aerobics or specialty dance classes? If you’re just going to hang out with friends, why not toss a football or shoot some hoops instead of hitting the local diner? Even if you’re home alone watching your favorite TV show, you can ride a stationary bike or walk the treadmill at the same time. There are so many ways to fit more activity into your lifestyle, so get a move on!


The No. 1 way to help your teen lead a healthier life is be supportive — but it’s a lot easier said than done. Being supportive means treading a fine line between helpful encouragement and annoying interference. Start with verbal support: Let your teen know that you are proud of his or her decision and that you would like to be as helpful as possible. Then, be considerate in your behavior — especially when it comes to the kitchen area. Buy healthy snacks for the whole family so your teen doesn’t feel tempted or excluded. As an added bonus, having healthy foods around the house will improve the eating habits of everyone in your family.

This is an important one for parents eager to be supportive: Don’t police your teen. Making comments about your son’s or daughter’s food choices, food habits, snacking options, portion sizes or anything else can lead to World War III in a lot of families. Don’t say, “Are you sure you want to eat that?” or, “That’s pretty high in calories, isn’t it?” Comments like these are not supportive — they merely undermine your child’s confidence, which is akin to undermining his or her healthy aspirations. Being supportive means you support the decision your teen has made — it doesn’t mean that you get to enforce that decision as you see fit.

Hiding food is another example of taking “support” a little too far. Denying your teen access to the whole kitchen takes away his or her ability to feel in control of diet choices. And that control is the most important step in designing a healthy and permanent lifestyle. Whenever possible, fill the house with foods that are good for everyone — you’ll be helping the whole family eat better. Keep more “tempting” foods out of sight, but don’t conceal from your teen where they are. Just having them out of the way will reduce the chances of them becoming late-night snacks. The bottom line is, your teen is responsible for deciding what to eat and what not to eat. So do your part to encourage feelings of confidence and restraint by supporting your child, not monitoring his or her every move.

Kids follow their parents. If you eat poorly, there’s a good chance your kids will eat poorly. Research shows that if you’re overweight or obese there is a significant chance that your child will be overweight or obese. Lead by example, and learn how to stock a healthy kitchen, prepare healthier meals (low fat, low calories) and lead a more active lifestyle.

Plan family time and vacations around activities that involve getting physical — hike, bike, walk, canoe, ski, etc. Purchase gifts that encourage physical activity — jump-ropes, fitness magazines, fun workout clothing, bicycles and biking accessories, tennis racquets, gym memberships, even some of the newer video games that require you to stand up and move around.

Rate this post

You may also like

Subscribe To The Weekly Food & Nutrition News and Research Digest
Our weekly email news and research digest is everything you need to know about food, nutrition, fitness and health.
No Thanks
Thanks for signing up. You must confirm your email address before we can send you. Please check your email and follow the instructions.
We respect your privacy. Your information is safe and will NEVER be shared.
Don't miss out. Subscribe today.