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Obese Teens Grow Into Severely Obese Adults

One of the most important risk factors for adult obesity is excess weight in children and youth.

But exactly how strong is this relationship?

This question was recently addressed by Natalie The and colleagues from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC, in a paper published this month in JAMA.

In order to determine the incidence and risk of severe obesity in adulthood by adolescent weight status, The and colleagues examined data from a cohort of 8834 individuals aged 12 to 21 years enrolled in 1996 in wave II of the US National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, followed up into adulthood (ages 18-27 years during wave III [2001-2002] and ages 24-33 years during wave IV [2007-2009]).

In 1996, only 79 (1.0%) of adolescents were severely obese, of which 60 (70.5%) remained severely obese in adulthood.

However, by 2009, 703 (7.9%) of the non-severely obese adolescents had also become severely obese in adulthood, with the highest rates for non-Hispanic black women.

While the adolescents, who did not become severely obese only gained around 5 BMI units over the 13-year observation period, adolescents, who became severely obese gained an average of 14 BMI units during the same time period.

Obese adolescents were 16 times more likely to develop severe obesity in young adulthood than normal-weight or overweight adolescents.

These findings are alarming but not surprising. Indeed, they are well reflected in the increasing demand for teenage bariatric surgery, a topic I blogged about just last week.

I am guessing that unless we find more effective behavioural or medical treatments for severe obesity, our surgeons will continue to have more patients than they can ever hope to cope with.

I wonder what suggestions my readers have on how best to increase awareness of this problem.

Acapulco, Mexico

The NS, Suchindran C, North KE, Popkin BM, & Gordon-Larsen P (2010). Association of adolescent obesity with risk of severe obesity in adulthood. JAMA : the journal of the American Medical Association, 304 (18), 2042-7 PMID: 21063014


  1. Dr. Sharma, I have worked with many obese teens and they are often very motivated to make changes and try to reverse their obesity. It is a difficult stage in ones life, as we all know. I have had moderate success with an integrated program that includes family nutrition and weight management counseling along with structured exercise. Unfortunately research will likely prove that the chemistry of obesity is likely set in by age 16 and the struggle will be lifelong for many. I think we need to get in much earlier!

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  2. Obese Teens Grow Into Severely Obese Adults

    wow, who could have imagined that scenario

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  3. I agree with Mavis that obesity needs treatment earlier – MUCH earlier. Doctors and public health nurses and school nurses see chldren for routine checkups and childhood illnesses and accidents. If a child is overweight that should be dealt with no matter why the health professional happens to see the child. If a child (or an adult for that matter) came to hospital for a sprained ankle and the treating doctor recognized a cancerous mole on the patient’s leg, the doctor wouldn’t ignore it because that wasn’t why the patient came in for treatment. Overweight should be dealt with as a medical problem even if the child, or more accurately the parent, doesn’t see it as such. Obesity in children should be regarded as child abuse if the parent persists in feeding the child the wrong food after they get help from a doctor and other medical people.

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  4. I feel the issue of obesity needs to be addressed at the root – the children and their families. What is causing this epidemic? Children are brilliant and, with some education, they can make healtier choices. Parents may also not be aware of what healthy cholces even look like. Parents are working, kids have hectic schedules and fast food has the allure of “fast”. Given some education however, families could learn that “fast” can also be healthy. Also, what is the root cause of the need to use food to the point of obesity? Is it bad choices, self-medicating to avoid feeling anything, lack of choice, lack of knowledge, poor self-image, etc.? I have a coaching practice and my experience in helping people who come to me regarding weight issues is that it’s never about the weight. The weight is just a symptom of something else. When they deal with the “something else”, then they start to take better care of themselves, make themselves a priority and make healltier choices. If the parents are dealing with their own issues and are not making healthy choices, what are they modeling for their children?

    Childhood obesity is a complex issue with no easy fix, but perhaps we need to approach it from any different angles, some which may not seem so obvious or directly related at first.

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  5. I was an obese teen (180-200 lbs at 5′-4″), and I’m 41 now and only 10 pounds heavier than I was back then. My secret? Not dieting.

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