April 25th, 2011
12:01 AM ET
A new study in the journal Pediatrics says high school students who are extremely obese engage in high-risk behaviors at rates similar to peers who maintain a healthy weight.
"Not only are they at health risk, but they also are typical teens and they're struggling with the same things that potentially other teens are struggling with," said senior study author Meg Zeller, from the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, who also is an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.
"We need to be talking about safe sex, drugs and alcohol with every teen and not assuming that this population is somehow not engaging in those behaviors," she said.
Researchers looked at data from a nationwide survey conducted in 2007 by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. They compared 410 extremely obese high school students with 8,669 of their peers who had a healthy weight. The measurement was the student's Body Mass Index, or BMI- a measurement which takes into account height, weight and gender.
An adolescent who had a BMI greater than or equal to the 99th percentile was considered extremely obese; those who had a BMI in the fifth to 84th percentile had a healthy weight.
The survey included specific questions about smoking cigarettes, the use of drugs or alcohol, sexual behaviors and thoughts of suicide.
The results showed the two groups had similar experiences, with few exceptions.
Zeller said the most surprising results involved sexual behavior.
"Our findings would suggest that teen girls who are extremely obese are less likely to have had sex- (that) was not surprising, but what was concerning was the fact that if they were sexually active, or had been sexually active, that it was more likely to be under the influences of substances," she said. "So it really paints this picture of vulnerability for this sub-population of teen girls and it really makes us question what their social interactions are really like."
In addition, both males and females in the extremely obese group were more likely to report having tried cigarettes. Extremely obese females were more likely to currently smoke and use smokeless tobacco.
Zeller noted that the study is part of research on bariatric surgery among these young people.
"We really need to understand the spectrum of health and mental health issues that these teens present with and how those things may change over time following a significant weight loss," she said.
"It's sort of adding another layer to the health and psychosocial risk for this sub-population of youth. They have type 2 diabetes, they have hypertension, they have sleep apnea, they have poor quality of life. These kids are suffering medically and psychosocially, and now we know that they're also engaging in high-risk behaviors. That could be a lethal combination."
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