Background and methods: Overweight in adolescents may have deleterious effects on their subsequent self-esteem, social and economic characteristics, and physical health. We studied the relation between overweight and subsequent educational attainment, marital status, household income, and self-esteem in a nationally representative sample of 10,039 randomly selected young people who were 16 to 24 years old in 1981. Follow-up data were obtained in 1988 for 65 to 79 percent of the original cohort, depending on the variable studied. The characteristics of the subjects who had been overweight in 1981 were compared with those for young people with asthma, musculoskeletal abnormalities, and other chronic health conditions. Overweight was defined as a body-mass index above the 95th percentile for age and sex.
Results: In 1981, 370 of the subjects were overweight. Seven years later, women who had been overweight had completed fewer years of school (0.3 year less; 95 percent confidence interval, 0.1 to 0.6; P = 0.009), were less likely to be married (20 percent less likely; 95 percent confidence interval, 13 to 27 percent; P < 0.001), had lower household incomes ($6,710 less per year; 95 percent confidence interval, $3,942 to $9,478; P < 0.001), and had higher rates of household poverty (10 percent higher; 95 percent confidence interval, 4 to 16 percent; P < 0.001) than the women who had not been overweight, independent of their base-line socioeconomic status and aptitude-test scores. Men who had been overweight were less likely to be married (11 percent less likely; 95 percent confidence interval, 3 to 18 percent; P = 0.005). In contrast, people with the other chronic conditions we studied did not differ in these ways from the nonoverweight subjects. We found no evidence of an effect of overweight on self-esteem.
Conclusions: Overweight during adolescence has important social and economic consequences, which are greater than those of many other chronic physical conditions. Discrimination against overweight persons may account for these results.