Changes in the prevalence and correlates of weight-control behaviors and weight perception in adolescents in the UK, 1986-2015

Francesca Solmi, Helen Sharpe, Suzanne H. Gage, Jane Maddock, Glyn Lewis, Praveetha Patalay

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Importance In the context of the growing prevalence of childhood obesity, behaviors aimed at weight loss and their psychological burden might be increasing.

Objective To investigate whether the prevalence of weight-control behaviors and weight perception, including their association with depressive symptoms, has changed in the 3 decades between 1986 and 2015.

Design, Setting, and Participants This study used data from repeated cross-sections from successive longitudinal birth cohort studies. These included general population samples of UK adolescents aged 14 to 16 years from 3 ongoing birth cohorts: the British Cohort Study 1970 (children born between April 5 and 11, 1970; data collected in 1986), the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (mothers with expected delivery between April 1, 1991, and December 21, 1992; data collected in 2005), and the Millennium Cohort Study (children born between September 1, 2000, and January 11, 2002; data collected in 2015). A total of 22 503 adolescents with data available on at least 1 weight-control or weight-perception variable in midadolescence were included in the study. Data were analyzed from August 1, 2019, to January 15, 2020.

Main Outcomes and Measures Self-reported lifetime dieting and exercise for weight loss, current intentions about weight (doing nothing, lose weight, stay the same, gain weight), and weight perception (underweight, about the right weight, overweight) adjusted for body mass index. The secondary outcome was depressive symptoms.

Exposures The main exposure was time (ie, cohort); secondary exposures were weight-change behaviors and weight perception.

Results The study cohort included 22 503 adolescents (mean [SD] age, 14.8 [0.3] years; 12 061 girls [53.6%]; and 19 942 White individuals [89.9%]). A total of 5878 participants were from the British Cohort Study, 5832 were from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, and 10 793 were from the Millennium Cohort Study. In 2015, 4809 participants (44.4%) had dieted and 6514 (60.5%) had exercised to lose weight compared with 1952 (37.7%) and 344 (6.8%) in 1986. Furthermore, 4539 (42.2%) were trying to lose weight in 2015 compared with 1767 (28.6%) in 2005. Although girls were more likely to report these behaviors in all years, their prevalence increased more in boys over time (lifetime dieting in boys: odds ratio [OR], 1.79; 95% CI, 1.24-2.59; in girls: OR, 1.23; 95% CI, 0.91-1.66; currently trying to lose weight in boys: OR, 2.75; 95% CI, 2.38-3.19; in girls: OR, 1.70; 95% CI, 1.50-1.92). Adolescents also became more likely to overestimate their weight (boys describing themselves as overweight adjusting for body mass index, 2005 vs 1985 OR, 1.60; 95% CI, 1.17-2.19; 2015 vs 1985 OR, 1.36; 95% CI, 1.04-1.80; girls describing themselves as underweight, after adjusting for body mass index, 2015 vs 1986 OR, 0.51; 95% CI, 0.28-0.91). Girls who described themselves as overweight experienced increasingly greater depressive symptoms over time compared to girls who described their weight as about right (mean difference 1986, 0.32; 95% CI, 0.22-0.41; mean difference 2005, 0.33; 95% CI, 0.24-0.42; mean difference 2015, 0.56; 95% CI, 0.49-0.62).

Conclusions and Relevance These findings suggest that the growing focus on obesity prevention might have had unintended consequences related to weight-control behaviors and poor mental health. Public health campaigns addressing obesity should include prevention of disordered eating behaviors and be sensitive to negative impact on mental health.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJAMA pediatrics
Early online date16 Nov 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 16 Nov 2020


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