Weight Goals, Disordered Eating Behaviors, and BMI Trajectories in US Young Adults

J Gen Intern Med. 2021 Sep;36(9):2622-2630. doi: 10.1007/s11606-021-06702-y. Epub 2021 Apr 19.


Background: Community sample data indicate that weight control efforts in young adulthood may have associations with greater increases in body mass index (BMI) over time.

Objective: To determine the prospective associations between weight goals and behaviors in young adults and BMI trajectories over 15-year follow-up using a nationally representative sample.

Design: Longitudinal cohort data collected from 2001 to 2018 of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health.

Participants: Young adults aged 18-26 years old at baseline stratified by gender and BMI category.

Main measures: Predictors: weight goals, any weight loss/maintenance behaviors, dieting, exercise, disordered eating behaviors.

Outcomes: BMI at 7- and 15-year follow-up.

Key results: Of the 12,155 young adults in the sample (54% female, 32% non-White), 33.2% reported a goal to lose weight, 15.7% to gain weight, and 14.6% to maintain weight. In unadjusted models, all groups have higher mean BMI at 7- and 15-year follow-up. In mixed effect models, goals to lose weight in men with BMI < 18.5 (5.94 kg/m2; 95% CI 2.58, 9.30) and goals to maintain weight in men with BMI ≥ 25 (0.44; 95% CI 0.15, 0.72) were associated with greater BMI increase compared to no weight goal. Engaging in disordered eating behaviors was associated with greater BMI increase in men with BMI < 18.5 (5.91; 2.96, 8.86) and women with 18.5 ≤ BMI < 25 (0.40; 0.16, 0.63). Dieting (- 0.24; - 0.41, - 0.06) and exercise (- 0.31; - 0.45, - 0.17) were associated with lower BMI increase in women with 18.5 ≤ BMI < 25. In women with BMI < 18.5, dieting was associated with greater BMI increase (1.35; 0.33, 2.37).

Conclusions: Weight control efforts may have variable effects on BMI over time by gender and BMI category. These findings underscore the need to counsel patients on the effectiveness of weight control efforts and long-term weight management.

Keywords: BMI; disordered eating behaviors; weight goals; weight trajectories; young adult.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Body Mass Index
  • Body Weight
  • Feeding Behavior
  • Feeding and Eating Disorders* / epidemiology
  • Female
  • Goals*
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Young Adult