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Research Snapshot: Behavioral and environmental factors play a role in obesity remission in adolescents

In a new study from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health’s Project EAT, research shows positive behavioral and environmental changes can help adolescents with obesity to achieve healthy weights in the future.

The study was aimed at determining if adolescents with obesity can successfully achieve a healthier weight in young adulthood, as well as determine if any psychosocial, behavioral or environmental factors are associated with adolescents who successfully manage their weight.

Although the majority of adolescents with obesity studied continued to be obese as young adults, one-third of adolescents with obesity achieved a healthier weight in young adulthood. The research reveals a need for prevention and attention to supporting healthy weights early on in adolescence.

Lead author, Allison Watts, Ph.D., a postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Public Health, studied 2,287 adolescents with an average age of 15, participating in Project EAT, of which 175 had obesity at baseline. Over the course of 10 years, participants self-reported height and weight as well as answered questionnaires regarding personal, psychological, behavioral, and socio environmental factors hypothesized to play a role in obesity.

“We found that there were factors that helped predict obesity remission. Remission in this instance is whether these adolescents were no longer classified as having obesity as young adults,” said Watts. “Those that endorsed dieting in adolescence were more likely to remain obese than those who didn’t diet. This further validates that dieting does not appear to be helpful over the long term.”

The study showed specific nutrition and activity-related behaviors that helped adolescents transition out of obesity, as compared to those who did not change their behaviors. The behavioral changes that predicted obesity remission were:

  • Increased fruit and vegetable intake
  • Decreased fast food intake
  • Increased physical activity level
  • Decreased screen time

Furthermore, adolescents with obesity who changed their exposure to unhealthy foods at home were also more likely to transition out of obesity. The environmental changes that predicted obesity remission were:

  • Having more fruits and vegetables available in the home
  • Having vegetables included at the dinner meal more frequently
  • Eating meals together with their family more frequently

“The teenagers who no longer had obesity as young adults had higher body satisfaction, self-esteem and experienced fewer depressive symptoms and weight-related teasing. These improved psycho-social factors could have both supported the weight-loss or may have been a result of the weight-loss,” said Watts.

Watts noted a need for more effective policies and programs that help support healthful behaviors in adolescents and young adults, such as policies that shape healthier food and physical activity environments, in order to encourage successful weight management.

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