Predicting obesity in young adulthood from childhood and parental obesity

N Engl J Med. 1997 Sep 25;337(13):869-73. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199709253371301.


Background: Childhood obesity increases the risk of obesity in adulthood, but how parental obesity affects the chances of a child's becoming an obese adult is unknown. We investigated the risk of obesity in young adulthood associated with both obesity in childhood and obesity in one or both parents.

Methods: Height and weight measurements were abstracted from the records of 854 subjects born at a health maintenance organization in Washington State between 1965 and 1971. Their parents' medical records were also reviewed. Childhood obesity was defined as a body-mass index at or above the 85th percentile for age and sex, and obesity in adulthood as a mean body-mass index at or above 27.8 for men and 27.3 for women.

Results: In young adulthood (defined as 21 to 29 years of age), 135 subjects (16 percent) were obese. Among those who were obese during childhood, the chance of obesity in adulthood ranged from 8 percent for 1- or 2-year-olds without obese parents to 79 percent for 10-to-14-year-olds with at least one obese parent. After adjustment for parental obesity, the odds ratios for obesity in adulthood associated with childhood obesity ranged from 1.3 (95 percent confidence interval, 0.6 to 3.0) for obesity at 1 or 2 years of age to 17.5 (7.7 to 39.5) for obesity at 15 to 17 years of age. After adjustment for the child's obesity status, the odds ratios for obesity in adulthood associated with having one obese parent ranged from 2.2 (95 percent confidence interval, 1.1 to 4.3) at 15 to 17 years of age to 3.2 (1.8 to 5.7) at 1 or 2 years of age.

Conclusions: Obese children under three years of age without obese parents are at low risk for obesity in adulthood, but among older children, obesity is an increasingly important predictor of adult obesity, regardless of whether the parents are obese. Parental obesity more than doubles the risk of adult obesity among both obese and nonobese children under 10 years of age.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Body Mass Index
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cohort Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Obesity / etiology*
  • Obesity / genetics
  • Odds Ratio
  • Parents
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Risk Factors