Food Behaviors of Adolescents Relative to Adiposity

Kitty Roberts Coffey, University of Tennessee, Knoxville


Food behaviors relative to adiposity were studied in 226 seventh-grade students from selected junior high schools in Knoxville, Tennessee. Height, weight, and triceps fatfold thickness were obtained for each subject. Based on triceps fatfold measurements (mm) students were divided as equally as possible into three groups and designated as "lean," "middle," and "fat." A questionnaire was designed and administered to obtain specific demographic information and to investigate differences between the "lean" and "fat" with regard to their perceived food preferences, food connotative meanings, knowledge of energy values of food and activity, and taste preferences for four Kool-Aid solutions ranging from zero to two times the manufacturer's recommended sweetness.

The prevalence of obesity was relatively high (26.9 percent); however, an even greater percentage (32.7) of students indicated that they considered themselves "overweight." Seventy percent of the self-declared overweight students reported the age of onset as after 9 years. Nearly one-half (47.3 percent) of the students expressed a desire to lose weight, whereas a little less than one-third (30.1) indicated a desire to gain weight.

No meaningful significant differences were found between the "lean" and "fat" adolescents for perceived food preferences, sucrose taste preferences, food connotative meanings, and knowledge of energy values of food and activity. Several differences of interest were observed between races and sexes, especially the former; however, these differences must be interpreted cautiously because compounding factors of race, sex, and socioeconomic status were inherent within race and sex groupings. The blacks and whites differed significantly in their preferences for 26 of 84 foods and the males and females for 20 of 84 foods with the blacks and males preferring a greater variety of foods than their counterparts.

Several significant differences were observed between mean scores of blacks and whites on three Calorie related connotative meaning scales; whites associated more foods with "high Calorie," "fattening," and "gaining" polar terms than blacks. Knowledge of energy values of food and activity was low with students correctly answering only one-third (34 percent) of the items. The mean scores on knowledge of energy values of foods for whites (11.0 ± 3.7) and blacks (9.7 ± 3.4) were significantly different (p < 0.05); moreover, for knowledge of energy values of activities the mean scores of whites (12.1 ± 3.2) and blacks (8.8 ± 3.5) were statistically different (p < 0.001).

For all three body fatness classes and both races and sexes the order of preference for the four Kool-Aid solutions was directly related to sucrose concentration. Mean taste scores substantiated the students' ability to rank the solutions with respect to sweetness. Sucrose preference or aversion did not appear to be a significant factor in the perpetuation of fatness or leanness under the conditions of this study.

As body weight is an equilibrium state between energy intake and energy expenditure, further research is needed to determine if the obesity of these "fat" subjects is the result of genetic or environmental factors or a combination. Additional study is needed to ascertain when differences become apparent between the "fat" and "lean" adolescents with regard to their familial-culturally evolved food preferences, meanings, and knowledge influencing food behaviors.