November 9th, 2010
04:17 PM ET
Adolescents who are obese are 16 times more likely to become severely obese adults than normal weight or overweight teens, according to new research in the Journal of the American Medical Association. A severely obese person carries an extra 80 to 100 pounds more than someone of normal weight, putting them at increased risk for multiple health problems and a shorter life expectancy.
Researchers analyzed data of 9,000 adolescents covering a span of 13 years to try to determine how weight as a young person influenced weight as an adult. The subjects, who ranged in age from 12 to 21 when the study begin, were divided into three weight groups: normal, overweight, and obese.
"We found that for the teenage girls who were obese, 51 percent of them became severely obese by their early 30's. For males it was 37 percent," explains study author Penny Gordon-Larsen, Associate Professor of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In contrast less than 5 percent of normal weight teens went on to become severely obese adults.
"We need to help prevent kids from gaining weight because once that weight is gained, especially at the severe obesity level, it's very hard to get people to lose weight," explains Gordon-Larsen.
The researchers also found that teens who were overweight but not obese when the study started, more than 15 percent of the girls and 6 percent of the boys went on to become severely obese adults. Overweight African-American girls were more likely than their white peers to bump up to the highest weight category.
Dr. David Ludwig, director of the Optimal Weight for Life Program at Children's Hospital Boston says this study confirms evidence of the severe impact of childhood obesity. "This underscores the importance of addressing childhood obesity as an urgent issue and not a condition that kids can be expected to grow out of," he said.
What does it mean to be severely obese? Normal weight for a woman 5 feet 4 is about 135 pounds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overweight is about 150 pounds, obese 180 pounds, and severely obese an alarming 235 pounds.
And those added pounds increase a person's risk for heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, certain cancers and other conditions.
More than one in six U.S. teens is obese according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, numbers experts find alarming.
"The epidemic of obesity in this generation of children may shorten life expectancy for the first time since the civil war, unless something is done about it," explains Ludwig.
Researchers say the first step is to intervene early in life to help children develop good health habits before they become adolescents.
"We know from a range of studies that we need to tackle this at the individual level, we need to tackle it at schools, pediatric clinics, in the environment. We need to do a lot of different kinds of things. It's not just one solution," says Gordon-Larsen.
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