It sounds like one of those no-brainers, that your eating habits in childhood stick with you into adulthood.

That teen dieters still skimp on meals as twenty-somethings. That those who try diet pills still use them as adults.

A new 10-year study by the University of Minnesota’s Project Eat confirmed those tendencies by monitoring the health and eating habits of thousands of men and women from adolescence to early adulthood.

Even if the results trend toward the obvious, they are important because they prove how formative those early years can be, said Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Project Eat’s lead researcher. They also prove that the risky use of laxatives and other weight-loss measures isn’t just a teen phase.

“Here we saw that it does set up a pattern for later on,” she said, “And that there really is a need for early prevention before these behaviours begin.”

The findings are a milestone for one of the most ambitious research projects undertaken when it comes to eating behaviours of teens and young adults. Project Eat researchers have examined everything from the protective effect of family dinners to the influence of fast-food marketing to the frequency of teasing about weight.

Neumark-Sztainer said it was surprising that extreme weight-loss behaviours such as binge eating not only continued in adulthood but became more prevalent among survey participants. While 8.4 per cent of participants tried these behaviours in adolescence, 20.4 per cent tried them as young adults.

“This is a group raised during the time period when there was a lot of emphasis on obesity and perhaps not enough sensitivity to the types of messages that we needed to be giving to young people,” she said.

Whether today’s teens will follow the same patterns is unclear. A new Project Eat survey of teens has begun and one day will provide that answer.

University researchers also hope to follow the original Project Eat participants into parenthood to see if their early behaviours influence their kids.


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