Obese teens tend to be socially outcast, and so researchers had long assumed they were less likely to engage in the kinds of risky social behaviors that mark traditional adolescence: drinking, smoking and hooking up. But a new survey finds that in fact obese teens are just as likely to participate in these rites of teenhood as their thinner peers.
In some ways, obese teens’ behavior is even riskier. The study found that obese teenagers drank alcohol about as often as normal-weight classmates, but they were more likely to smoke cigarettes or use chewing tobacco. And while obese teen girls were less likely to have sex than thin girls, those who were sexually active were more likely to use drugs or alcohol before sex.
The survey included responses from 9,000 high school students, who participated in the 2007 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which is administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention every two years. Among the students, 410 were extremely obese (defined as having a BMI in the 99th percentile), and the rest were considered healthy weight (with BMIs between the fifth and 84th percentiles).
According to the survey, teenage girls were more likely to have tried cigarettes or smoke regularly than girls with a healthy weight. But it was obese girls’ sexual habits that particularly troubled researchers.
“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,” lead researcher Meg Zeller of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center told CNN. “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.”
Obese boys were more likely to smoke cigarettes or use smokeless tobacco than thin boys, but did not report the same risky sexual behavior.
“Obese adolescents are already at greater risk for the development of additional chronic health conditions, the likes of which may be exacerbated by cigarette smoking, resulting in compound health risk,” wrote the authors.
The researchers believe their work could be used to better identify physical and mental health risks of extremely obese teens, and to target the proper psychological and health counseling services to this population.