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Young people's desire to lose weight: implications for diet and health

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The cultural ideal of thinness, coupled with the much publicised increase in obesity prevalence, has ensured that weight loss is a top priority for many Britons. A desire for weight loss is particularly prevalent in adolescence but little is known about its impact on a range of important health-related behaviours. Many young people are failing to meet recommendations for physical activity and diet and are engaging in health-compromising behaviours, such as smoking and consuming alcohol (Health Survey for England, 2006). This study therefore aimed to examine the relationship among young people between weight loss desires and diet, physical activity, smoking and alcohol consumption. Methods: 

Data were collected from young people aged 12–13 years and 14–15 years attending 260 schools across England during 2005 and 2006. Data were collected by the School Health Education Unit using a self-completed survey (further information on data collection is available at Study variables were: (i) 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’); (ii) meal skipping at breakfast; in the past 7 days, the (iii) consumption of healthy foods (healthy food index score calculated from wholemeal bread, high fibre cereals/muesli, fresh fruit, salad, and vegetable consumption); (iv) consumption of unhealthy foods (unhealthy food index score calculated from chips/roast potatoes, sugar-coated cereal, fizzy drink (not low calorie), crisps, and sweets/chocolate/chocolate bar consumption); (v) the number of days that included some moderate/vigorous physical activity; (vi) frequency of cigarette smoking; and (vii) units of alcohol consumed. All data were analysed using SPSS, version 15 (SPSS Inc., Chicago, IL, USA) and P < 0.01 was considered statistically significant. The relationship between weight-related desires and health behaviours were analysed using chi-squared tests or Kruskal–Wallis test followed by post hoc Mann–Whitney U-tests as appropriate. Results: 

Data were collected from 63 275 young people: 7.8% of the sample wanted to put on weight, 49.1% were happy with their weight and 43.2% wanted to lose weight. Compared to young people who were happy with their weight, young people who wanted to lose weight were significantly more likely to skip breakfast (25.7% versus 16.2%, P < 0.001), consume low levels of unhealthy food [8.04 (3.14) versus 7.09 (3.12) points, P < 0.001], consume low levels of healthy food [8.68 (3.30) versus 8.58 (3.22) points, P < 0.01], take part in low levels of physical activity [2.55 (1.34) versus 2.33 (1.27) days, P < 0.001], smoke more frequently [1.32 (7.83) versus 0.77 (5.90) days, P < 0.001] and drink a greater number of alcoholic units week−1 [2.49 (5.82) versus 1.93 (5.01) units, P < 0.001]. Discussion: 

Young people who wanted to lose weight restricted their consumption of unhealthy foods, but they did not counterbalance this by increasing their consumption of healthy foods. Furthermore, participants who wanted to lose weight were more likely to skip breakfast, which is an extremely important meal for young people. Although exercise is an effective method of controlling bodyweight, young people who want to lose weight were significantly less likely to carry out beneficial exercise than other children. It is an unfortunate paradox that young people with weight loss-desires were also more likely to engage in eating and exercise behaviours that have been associated with weight gain in the long term. In addition, young people who wanted to lose weight were at risk of future health problems as a result of higher rates of smoking and alcohol consumption (DoH, 2004; BMA, 2003). Conclusions: 

Many young people in England would like to lose weight and need support and education to ensure that they engage in healthy dietary, exercise and coping behaviours. References 

British Medical Association (2003) Adolescent Health. London: BMA.

Department of Health, Department for Education and Skills (2004) National Services Framework for Children, Young People and Maternity Services: Core Standards. London: The Stationery Office.

Health Survey for England (2006) Obesity and Other Risk Factors in Children. London: The Stationery Office.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: School of Biosciences, Division of Nutritional Sciences, Sutton Bonington Campus, Loughborough, Leicestershire, UK 2: School of Nursing, Queen's Medical Centre, Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, UK, Email:

Publication date: 2009-06-01

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