Unhealthy behaviors often carry into adulthood

Many Americans struggle with eating, activity, or weight-related problems as they age.

According to a recent study, these problems often begin in adolescence.

The study surveyed 858 girls and 597 boys and repeated surveys with them every five years over a 20 year span.

Researchers found that unhealthy behaviors such as eating fast food, not getting enough physical activity, and engaging in unhealthy weight-control practices, such as using diet pills and skipping meals were continued, if not worsened as these adolescents became adults.

Leslie Heinberg, Ph.D., counsels patients with weight-related difficulties at Cleveland Clinic. She did not take part in the study, but said it shows young people who struggle with eating, activity and weight difficulties cannot simply outgrow these problems.

“Unfortunately, these problems were pretty consistent over time and for almost all of the categories, things got worse for these individuals as they became adults,” she said. “This shows that thinking adolescents will grow out of unhealthy behaviors and develop good ones as they reach adulthood is wrong based on these findings.”

Dr. Heinberg said not only did unhealthy habits get worse, the percentage of individuals who were overweight or obese also went up.

She said obesity is difficult to treat because it’s a chronic condition once adulthood sets in, so the best way to address obesity is to prevent it from starting.

Dr. Heinberg said it’s important not to dismiss unhealthy behavior in children, and that it’s best for families, schools and healthcare providers to intervene sooner rather than later.

“We really need to set things up so that when we see these problems developing – whether it is excessive consumption of fast food; being sedentary; skipping meals or using really unhealthy eating patterns – the time to intervene is now and not wait and hope that once they’re an adult, they’ll get these things under control,” she said.

Dr. Heinberg said there are certain windows of risk when it comes to the development of obesity – one is around the time of puberty and another is the early stages of adulthood when people are undergoing many life changes.

She said it’s important to get into healthy habits during these crucial times of change to help prevent lifelong problems.

Complete results of the study can be found in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.