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The desire to lose weight amongst British adolescents: analysis of 10 years data

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Previous cross-sectional research has identified that the desire to lose weight is prevalent amongst young people (McCabe & Ricciardelli, 2003; McCabe & Ricciardelli, 2005). What is less well understood is the extent to which these young people are justified in their desire to lose weight. It is thought that increasing weight-loss desires are justified by increasing obesity rates. Identifying those young people with appropriate, excessive and insufficient concerns is important because of the differing needs and public health approaches that these groups will require. Therefore, this study aimed to investigate the prevalence of weight-loss desires amongst adolescents between 1997 and 2006 and to identify changes in the appropriateness of these weight-related attitudes. Methods: 

Data were collected by the School Health Education Unit annually over 10 years using a self-completed survey (further information on data collection is available at providing a sample of 243 206 young people. The survey assessed weight-related desires (‘I would like to put on weight’, ‘I am happy with my weight as it is’ and ‘I would like to lose weight’) and self-reported height and weight. Body mass index (BMI) was calculated and participants were categorised as underweight, overweight and obese. Participants were classified as having: (i) weight-related desires appropriate to their bodyweight (e.g. a healthy bodyweight and happy with their weight or overweight and wanting to lose weight); (ii) insufficient concerns (e.g. overweight but happy with their weight); or (iii) excessive concerns (e.g. a healthy bodyweight but wanting to lose weight). All data were analysed using SPSS, version 15 (SPSS Inc., Chicago, IL, USA). Trends for weight-loss desires and appropriate and inappropriate concerns were displayed graphically by year, gender and ethnicity, factors discovered to independently affect a person's weight-related desire. ‘Standard error of proportions’ identified significant changes. Results: 

Weight loss desires are higher in females than in 14–15-year-old males. Weight loss desires are more prevalent in 12–13-year-old males than those in Year 10; however, the reverse is true for females. In each year throughout the last decade, boys were significantly more likely to have weight-related desires appropriate for their weight classification compared to girls. Excessive concern about being overweight was consistently most prevalent among girls. Older girls (14–15 years) were consistently more likely to have excessive concerns compared to younger girls (12–13 years). However, the proportion of older girls with excessive concerns decreased slightly over the 10-year period, whereas the proportion of younger girls with excessive concerns increased slightly. The above observations were consistent across all ethnicities. Discussion: 

Although the expected patterns in weight-loss desires were not found, the study demonstrates that many young people in the UK do not have weight-related desires that are appropriate for their bodyweight. Although previous cross-sectional research (McCreary & Sasse, 2000; McCabe & Ricciardelli, 2003) has demonstrated that older females have a greater prevalence of excessive concern, it is encouraging to observe that this has slightly decreased over the past 10 years. What previous studies have been unable to demonstrate are the rises in excessive concern amongst younger girls, suggesting the possibility for a novel target audience for health promotion campaigns. Conclusions: 

Inappropriate concern, particularly excessive concern, is consistently found throughout the last 10 years in the UK population of young people. It is important to acknowledge that young people are not a homogenous group but have differing beliefs and needs regards health promotion, and that people who want to lose weight, despite not needing to, do not need their concerns reinforced. References 

McCabe, M.P. & Ricciardelli, L.A. (2003) Sociocultural influences on body image and body change strategies among adolescent boys and girls. J. Soc. Psychol.143, 5–26.

McCabe, M.P. & Ricciardelli, L.A. (2005) A longitudinal study of body image and strategies to lose weight and increase muslces among children. Appl. Dev. Psychol.26, 559–577.

McCreary, D.R. & Sasse, D.K. (2000) An exploration of the drive for muscularity in adolescent boys and girls. J. Am. Coll. Health48, 297–304.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2009-06-01

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