The Weight of Social Factors

Obesity related to emotional and social factors in young adults

March 27, 2013 / Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

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(dailyRx News) Negative emotions related to body image can weigh heavy on one's heart, but could these factors actually be related to physical weight as well?

A recent 10-year study followed people as they aged from teens to young adults. The study connected personal factors like body dissatisfaction, unhealthy habits like binge eating and social pressures like teasing to an increased likelihood of being overweight years later.

"Try to exercise several times a week."

Lead author Virginia Quick, PhD, RD, of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and team utilized data from the Project EAT (Eating and Activity in Teens and Young Adults) study, which took place in Minnesota.

The 2,134 people studied were first surveyed during adolescence in 1998 to 1999, when they had an average age of 15, and then again 10 years later during young adulthood. The follow-up surveys took place in 2008 and 2009, when the participants' average age was 25.4 years.

The participants provided weight and height data to the researchers, which was used to calculate body mass index (BMI). A BMI over 25 kg/m2 is considered overweight. 

Personal, behavioral and and socio-environmental factors (which included things like availability of healthy food, parental weight concerns and weight-based teasing) were measured using a variety of scales and questions.

As adolescents, 25.1 percent of females and 25.9 percent of males were overweight, numbers which increased to 47.5 percent of females and 56.1 percent of males by young adulthood.

Of those who were not overweight as adolescents, 34.2 percent of the females and 45.4 percent of the males had become overweight by the time of the follow-up survey.

The researchers found various factors that were widely present among the group that was not overweight initially, but later became overweight.

According to the authors, “Among females and males, higher levels of body dissatisfaction, weight concerns, unhealthy weight control behaviors (eg, fasting), dieting, binge eating, weight-related teasing, and parental weight-related concerns and behaviors during adolescence, and/or increases in these factors over the 10-year study period predicted the incidence of overweight.”

For example, the researchers found that higher reported levels of body satisfaction during adolescence were related to a lower likelihood of being overweight as a young adult, while higher levels of weight concern as a teen were connected with a greater likelihood of being overweight 10 years later.

In females, weight-related teasing as an adolescent was related to a greater chance of being overweight as a young adult. The same was true in males, but to a lesser extent.

The study also found some behaviors that seemed to counter weight gain.  

For example, females that ate more whole grains and frequently ate both breakfast and dinner were less likely to become overweight 10 years later, and the same was true for males who ate more vegetables.

It is important to note that since the weight and height data used to calculate BMI were self-reported, there could have been some errors or limitations.

The authors suggested that this study may be used to argue for strategies like promoting positive body image and limiting teasing about weight among adolescents as methods to curb obesity.

The study was published March 25 in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. No conflicts of interest were reported.

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Review Date: 
March 27, 2013
Last Updated:
March 27, 2013