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When young people leave the nest to fly on their own, their weight often soars, too. The percentage of people who are obese doubles from the teen years to the mid-20s, according to a study that tracked almost 10,000 people.
About 22% of twentysomethings are obese, which is roughly 30 pounds over a healthy weight. About half of them were obese as teenagers.
Experts are worried because they say this sudden weight gain sets the stage for serious health problems linked to obesity, including diabetes, heart disease and most types of cancer.
Twentysomethings may be vulnerable to weight gain because ''they are going to college, moving, finding jobs, getting married, having babies. It's a jam-packed decade,'' says lead researcher Penny Gordon-Larsen, an assistant professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
''Just like everybody else, they fall prey to giant portion sizes and junk foods. I don't know if they are too busy to exercise or don't have the opportunity to easily exercise in their neighborhoods.''
She is presenting her research today in Fort Lauderdale at the annual meeting of the North American Association for the Study of Obesity, co-sponsored by the American Diabetes Association.
For the latest study, Gordon-Larsen and UNC colleagues reviewed the height and weight records of 9,561 people in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. Participants, who were ages 13 to 20 when the study started, were weighed and measured until they were 19 to 26.
Researchers found that overall, 27% were overweight and 22% obese by their 20s. About 11% were obese as teenagers at the start of the research and stayed that way, and another 11% became obese during this time period.
Young blacks were found to have the highest obesity rates; Asians had the lowest rates.
Overall, 31% of adults in the USA are obese.
''This is a wake-up call,'' says George Blackburn, associate director of the division of nutrition at Harvard Medical School. The weight gain has to do with portion sizes and food patterns, he says.
''It has to be something in the environment because the genetics haven't changed that much,'' he says.
The study emphasizes the needs for as much prevention as possible at an early age to get people on the right path, Gordon-Larsen says.
Young people have to be physically active even though they are busy, she says. ''Companies should set up blocks of time during the work day when people can exercise and create places for employees to exercise. Workplace cafeterias need to offer healthy foods at a reasonable price and in reasonable portions.
''Everybody thinks this is a time of peak health, but it's not,'' Gordon-Larsen says. ''Obesity is a problem for this age group.''
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