Weight Status and BMI-related Traits in Adolescent Friendship Groups and Role of Sociodemographic Factors: The European IDEFICS/I.Family Cohort

Kirsten Mehlig*, Christopher Holmberg, Leonie Helen Bogl, Eva Erhardt, Charalambos Chadjigeorgiou, Antje Hebestreit, Jaakko Kaprio, Fabio Lauria, Nathalie Michels, Iris Pigeot, Lucia A. Reisch, Toomas Veidebaum, Lauren Lissner, On behalf of the IDEFICS consortium, I.Family Consortium

*Corresponding author for this work

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Background: During adolescence, health behaviors and weight status are increasingly influenced by friendship and peer networks. This paper examines resemblances in weight-related characteristics and how they differ by sociodemographic factors.
Methods: Over 3,000 friendships were reported by 1,603 adolescents, aged 11–16 years, who participated in the school-based I.Family study in 6 European countries. Each “source child” named 1–10 friends for whom standardized weight-related traits were available in the same survey. The mean value of the friends’ traits weighted by time spent together was calculated, and related to the source child’s trait. Country, age and sex of the source child, parental education, and immigrant background were considered for confounding and moderation.
Results: Source children’s z-scores of body fat percent and BMI were positively associated with their friends’ characteristics, in particular if they had highly educated parents. Positive associations were also found regarding the frequency of fast-food consumption, impulsivity, screen time, preference for sugar-sweetened foods, and hours spent in sports clubs, in increasing order of effect size. Additionally, correlations were observed between friends’ cognitive and school functioning and being bullied. No associations were seen for a preference for high-fat foods, weight concerns, and health-related quality of life. Finally, parental education and immigrant background were associated between friends in all countries except Sweden, where no associations were observed.
Conclusion: Adolescent friends shared a number of weight-related characteristics. For weight measures per se, positive associations with friends’ characteristics were only observed in adolescents with high parental education. Associations regarding energy-balance behaviors and indicators of school-related well-being did not differ by parental education. Parental education and immigrant background correlated positively in friends in most countries showing that social aggregation is already occurring in adolescence. The wide spectrum of friendship associations in weight-related traits and behaviors suggests that health promotion initiatives in adolescents should be directed towards peer groups in both school-related and leisure-time environments.
Original languageEnglish
JournalObesity Facts
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)121-130
Number of pages10
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2021

Bibliographical note

Published online: December 22, 2020.


  • Adolescent health
  • Obesity
  • Friendship networks
  • Sociodemographic factors

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