Weight Goals in a College-age Population
University at Albany, Department of Psychology, 369 Social Science, Albany NY 12222. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Objective: Although a growing body of literature has found unrealistic weight loss goals to be common among older, primarily female, subjects, little is known about weight loss goals of younger adults.
Research Methods and Procedures: Three hundred seventy-nine college students had their height and weight taken and reported their “goal,” “dream,” “happy,” “acceptable,” and “disappointed” weights. A series of 2 (gender) × 2 (nonoverweight vs. overweight) ANOVAs were conducted with both absolute weight goals and percentage of weight loss needed to obtain those goals as dependent variables.
Results: When examined in terms of absolute weight goals, women generally had lower body mass index (BMI) goals than men, and nonoverweight participants had lower BMI goals than overweight participants. Surprisingly, most overweight participants would accept a weight loss that would still place them in the overweight BMI range. When examined in terms of percentage loss needed to reach those goals, only overweight women chose goal and dream weights that would require a loss greater than can be expected from nonsurgical weight-loss treatments, and all overweight participants chose happy and acceptable weights within 15% of current weight.
Discussion: Participants in this study had generally reasonable weight-loss goals, and even the most extreme weight loss goals were much more moderate than those found in previous studies. These results are surprising given the extreme social pressures for thinness facing young adults. Future studies should examine the variables that influence selection of goal weights and how goal weights affect actual dieting behavior.
There is a growing body of research suggesting that the amount of weight loss desired by obese patients is considerably greater than the 5% to 15% weight loss that existing nonsurgical treatments can produce (1)(2)(3)(4).
Although these studies have drawn attention to the unrealistic nature of weight-loss goals, the patients in these studies were women and their mean age was ∼40 years; it is unclear if these findings can be generalized to younger women and men. It is important to study weight-loss goals in young adults because the unrealistic weight-loss goals found in previous studies of older adults, particularly older women, may have their origins at this age. For example, although not examining weight loss goals per se, Crawford and Campbell (5) found that younger women had definitions of ideal weight and overweight that were lower and more extreme than men of all ages, as well as middle-aged and older women. The current study sought to expand our understanding of goal weights by investigating a number of weight goals in normal and overweight college-age participants not specifically seeking treatment for weight loss.
This study used a portion of the Goals and Relative Weights Questionnaire (2) (see Research Methods and Procedures section) to examine two slightly different aspects of goal weights. First, several goal weights were examined in absolute terms. Although participants stated all goal weights in pounds, goals were converted into kilograms and body mass index (BMI)1 units (expressed in kilograms per meters squared). Although participants were unlikely to conceptualize their goals in terms of kilograms or BMI, converting to these units allowed the results to be compatible with current international weight-classification systems.
Based on the results of previous studies and the pervasive concern about body image observed in young adults (6)(7)(8), we hypothesized that all participants, regardless of gender or weight status, would choose “goal,” “dream,” “happy,” and “acceptable” weights that would place them in the normal BMI range (BMI, 18.5 to 24.9 kg/m2). We also hypothesized that all participants, regardless of gender or weight status, would choose a “disappointed” weight that would place them in the overweight or obese BMI range (BMI ≥25 kg/m2). Furthermore, although we expected that both men and women would show this pattern of goal weights, we hypothesized that women would choose goal weights that would result in significantly lower BMIs than men.
All goal weights were also examined in terms of percentage loss required to reach them. It is important to measure this aspect of goal weights because a goal might be reasonable from an absolute perspective but might be unreasonable because it would require a weight loss greater than is likely through nonsurgical means. For example, if an individual 170 cm tall, weighing 90 kg (BMI, 31 kg/m2), wished to lose 23 kg through behavioral treatment, this would be considered a reasonable goal in terms of moving into nonobese status (BMI, 23 kg/m2); however, a 23-kg weight loss (i.e., a 25.5% loss) is not realistic given the probable results of behavioral therapy. We hypothesized that overweight participants, regardless of gender, would choose goal, dream, happy, and acceptable goal weights that would require a weight loss greater than could be expected by nonsurgical means (i.e., >5% to 15% loss).
Research Methods and Procedures
Three hundred seventy-nine college students (216 women, 163 men; age, ≤29 years) participated in exchange for course credit. The overwhelming majority of participants included in the analyses were young adults, although some were in their later 20s (mean age, 19.3 years; range, 17 to 29 years). Sixty-six percent (n = 250) were white, 9% (n = 35) were African American, 10% (n = 37) were Asian, 6% (n = 24) were Hispanic, and 9% (n = 33) did not indicate their ethnicity. Mean weight was 70.2 ± 16.1 kg, and the mean height was 168.2 ± 10.0 cm. The participants’ mean BMI was 24.6 ± 4.4 kg/m2. A total of 252 were nonoverweight (BMI, ≤24.9 kg/m2; 67%), 87 were overweight (BMI, 25.0 to 29.9 kg/m2; 23%), and 40 were obese (BMI, ≥30.0 kg/m2; 11%). For purposes of analyses, participants in the overweight and obese categories were collapsed into one category termed overweight (BMI, ≥25.0 kg/m2). Table 1 provides information on participants’ current weight and BMI by weight classification.
Table 1. Participants’ current weight and BMI
|Men (N = 163)||79.58 ± 15.64||25.52 ± 4.61|
| Nonoverweight (n = 90)||70.33 ± 7.54||22.51 ± 1.62|
| Overweight (n = 73)||90.98 ± 15.54||29.24 ± 4.38|
|Women (N = 216)||63.04 ± 12.29||23.85 ± 4.10|
| Nonoverweight (n = 162)||57.83 ± 6.56||21.90 ± 1.70|
| Overweight (n = 54)||78.67 ± 12.27||29.71 ± 3.61|
Participants’ weight goals were assessed according to the Goals and Relative Weight Questionnaire (GRWQ). The GRWQ (2) is a two-part self-report questionnaire. Part I assesses factors such as health, appearance, and social norms that influence selection of a goal weight. Part II probes weight-loss goals. Current weight is obtained, and individuals are asked for five weight loss goals: goal weight, dream weight, happy weight, acceptable weight, and disappointed weight. For this study, participants were given only Part II of the GRWQ. Table 2 gives descriptions of these weights.
Table 2. Description of weights from the GRWQ
|Goal weight||What is your goal weight?|
|Dream weight||A weight you would choose if you could weigh whatever you wanted.|
|Happy weight||This weight is not as ideal as the first one. It is a weight, however, that you would be happy with.|
|Acceptable weight||A weight that you would not be particularly happy with, but one you could accept.|
|Disappointed weight||A weight you would not find satisfactory in any way.|
Participants’ current height and weight were obtained, and they completed a packet of questionnaires including demographic information and Part II of the GRWQ.
Absolute Goal Weights
Five 2 (gender) × 2 (overweight vs. nonoverweight) ANOVAs were performed using BMI goals as dependent variables. Table 3 provides information on participants’ responses. With the exception of disappointed weight, there was a main effect for gender for all goal weights (all significant; p < 0.01), as well as a main effect for weight status for all goal weights (all significant; p < 0.01). There was no interaction between gender and weight status for any of the goal weights. As can be seen from the tables, with the exception of disappointed weight, men had significantly higher goal BMIs than women, and overweight participants had significantly higher goal BMIs than nonoverweight participants on all goal weights.
Table 3. Weight goals
| Weight, kg||75.06 ± 9.60||87.10 ± 14.43||80.41 ± 13.38||53.86 ± 5.82||65.61 ± 8.86||56.80 ± 8.41|
| BMI||23.94 ± 3.48a||28.04 ± 3.54b||25.76 ± 4.05A||21.50 ± 13.49a||24.53 ± 2.74b||22.26 ± 11.82B|
| Percentage weight loss/gain||6.88 ± 9.58a||−3.79 ± 8.81b||2.14 ± 10.64A||−6.62 ± 5.57a||−16.00 ± 7.74b||−8.97 ± 7.39B|
| Weight, kg||77.22 ± 10.99||86.71 ± 13.93||81.81 ± 12.84||52.24 ± 5.42||61.05 ± 8.63||54.46 ± 7.39|
| BMI||24.89 ± 3.13a||27.87 ± 3.76b||26.21 ± 3.72A||19.71 ± 1.98a||22.82 ± 2.68b||20.49 ± 2.56B|
| Percentage weight loss/gain||9.93 ± 11.73a||−4.04 ± 12.60b||3.72 ± 13.95A||−9.27 ± 7.26a||−21.65 ± 9.91b||−12.38 ± 9.62B|
| Weight, kg||73.90 ± 10.72||87.19 ± 14.37||79.81 ± 14.09||54.96 ± 5.83||68.63 ± 10.27||58.38 ± 9.31|
| BMI||23.79 ± 2.72a||28.06 ± 3.78b||25.69 ± 3.87A||20.75 ± 2.12a||25.64 ± 3.09b||21.97 ± 3.20B|
| Percentage weight loss/gain||5.11 ± 10.71a||−3.86 ± 6.84b||1.12 ± 10.20A||−4.76 ± 4.90a||−12.35 ± 6.79b||−6.65 ± 6.34B|
| Weight, kg||71.23 ± 9.12||89.62 ± 16.05||79.40 ± 15.61||56.97 ± 6.07||72.47 ± 10.71||60.84 ± 10.06|
| BMI||22.95 ± 2.40a||28.82 ± 4.17b||25.56 ± 4.40A||21.62 ± 1.53a||27.09 ± 3.45b||22.99 ± 3.21B|
| Percentage weight loss/gain||1.31 ± 7.56a||−1.43 ± 6.32b||−0.10 ± 7.14A||−1.28 ± 4.98a||−7.58 ± 5.91b||−2.86 ± 5.89B|
|Disappointed|| || || || || || |
| Weight, kg||73.13 ± 23.51||94.06 ± 19.79||82.43 ± 24.23||59.49 ± 7.38||78.81 ± 13.04||64.32 ± 12.37|
| BMI||23.59 ± 7.63a||30.30 ± 5.79b||26.57 ± 7.62A||22.56 ± 1.92a||29.45 ± 4.20b||24.28 ± 4.01A|
| Percentage weight loss/gain||4.00 ± 32.54a||3.51 ± 12.92a||3.78 ± 25.67A||2.90 ± 5.47a||0.34 ± 7.52a||2.26 ± 6.13A|
As predicted, all women and nonoverweight men chose goal and dream weights that were in the normal BMI range. However, contrary to prediction, overweight women chose happy and acceptable weights in the overweight range, and all of the goal weights chosen by overweight men were in the overweight range. Also contrary to prediction, nonoverweight participants, regardless of gender, chose disappointed weights that were still in the normal BMI range.
Desired Percentage of Weight Loss
Five 2 (gender) × 2 (overweight vs. nonoverweight) ANOVAs were performed with percentage change to reach goal weights as dependent variables. Table 3 provides information on participants’ responses. There were main effects for gender and weight status for goal, dream, happy, and acceptable weights (p < 0.01), with women needing larger percentage losses to reach goal weights than men, and overweight participants needing larger percentage losses to reach goal weights than nonoverweight participants. There was an interaction between gender and weight status for acceptable weight (p < 0.01). As can be seen in Table 3, the discrepancy between overweight and nonoverweight percentage loss to reach acceptable weight among women was significantly different from the discrepancy between overweight and nonoverweight for percentage loss among men. For disappointed weight, there was no effect for gender or weight status, and there was no interaction.
As predicted, overweight women chose goal and dream weights that would require a loss greater than the 15% that can be expected from nonsurgical weight loss treatments. Contrary to predictions, however, overweight women chose happy and acceptable weights within 15%, and overweight men chose all goal weights within this range.
This study examined weight-loss goals in college-age participants as both absolute amounts and as percentage needed to reach those goals. In terms of absolute goal weights, the study hypotheses were partially supported. In general, women had lower BMI goals than men, and nonoverweight participants had lower BMI goals than overweight participants. Although most participants chose goal and dream weights in the nonoverweight BMI range as expected, overweight women chose happy and acceptable weights in the overweight BMI range, and all of the goal weights chosen by overweight men were in the overweight BMI range. This suggests that, despite strong social pressure for thinness, the overweight young adults in this sample had reasonable weight-loss goals. In particular, participants would accept a weight loss that still places them in the overweight BMI range.
When examined in terms of percentage loss needed to reach those goals, only overweight women chose goal and dream weights that would require a loss greater than the 15% that can be expected from nonsurgical weight-loss treatments, and all overweight participants chose happy and acceptable weights within 15%. This suggests that the weight-loss goals of overweight college-age individuals in this sample are largely reachable with standard behavioral or pharmacological treatments.
The pattern of results seen in this study is markedly different from those found by most previous studies. For example, Foster et al. (2) found that obese female participants chose goal, dream, happy, and acceptable goal weights unreachable by nonsurgical treatment (32.9%, 38.0%, 31.4%, and 25.1% losses, respectively), and even their disappointed goal was at the limits of what can be expected from behavior therapy or pharmacotherapy (17.4% loss). Those weight-loss goals are ∼2 to 3 times more extreme than those found among the overweight women in the present study. Similar results have been found in other clinical weight-loss samples (1)(4), as well as a sample of obese persons being treated for binge-eating disorder (3). However, a community sample of obese persons (4) had goal weights only slightly higher than those of the present study.
The reasons for the discrepancy between the present study and previous studies are unclear. Although participants in previous studies typically had higher BMIs than the overweight participants in the present study, higher BMIs were generally associated with higher goal weights in these studies. Thus, differences in BMI are not likely to have caused the observed discrepancy. Participants in previous studies were also older than those in the present study, although the effect of age on goal weights is unknown. It is possible that a longer history of (presumably) unsuccessful dieting leads to the development of more extreme weight-loss goals. Also, goal weights seem to be related to lowest adult weight (2)(3), which is often weight during the college-age years. Another possible explanation for the discrepancy is that participants in most previous studies were specifically seeking treatment for obesity (1)(2) or binge-eating disorder (3). Individuals seeking treatment for these problems report higher levels of psychopathology and may have more severe levels of body-image disturbance than non-treatment-seeking obese (9)(10), which might drive them to choose more extreme weight-loss goals (4). In this study, overweight female participants had goal weights roughly comparable to a sample of older, non-treatment-seeking obese participants in a previous study (4). More studies are clearly needed to determine the factors affecting goal weights.
Nonoverweight women in this study also desired weight loss, although the amount of loss desired was generally small. If allowed to choose any weight at all (i.e., dream weight), nonoverweight women chose weights that would require them to lose almost 10% of their current body weight. However, these participants’ acceptable weights were very similar to their current weights. This suggests that the extreme drive for thinness and body dissatisfaction commonly observed in college-age women (7)(8)(11) may be an artifact of asking about ideal, “dream” weights, rather than acceptable weights. A recent study examining acceptable body shapes reached similar conclusions (12).
The pattern of results seen in male participants was also interesting. Nonoverweight men actually chose goal weights that represented an increase in BMI, although still within the normal range. This probably represents a desire for an increase in muscle mass, not an increase in body weight per se. Overweight men chose goal weights that all fell in the overweight range. This might represent a lack of desire in male participants to lose weight; men are much less likely to suffer negative psychosocial consequences from being overweight (10) and are less likely to report dieting than women (13). However, the reported goal weights may represent a desire for an increase in muscle mass combined with a decrease in body fat.
Overall, the present study found that college-age individuals had generally reasonable weight-loss goals, and even the most extreme weight-loss goals found in this group (those of the overweight women) were much less extreme than those found in previous studies of older treatment-seeking obese participants. Nonoverweight men actually chose goal weights that were higher than their current weight. These goals, particularly those of the overweight participants, are surprising given the extreme social pressures for thinness facing young adults and the prevalence of dieting in this age group. Future studies are necessary to understand the variables that influence selection of goal weights and how goal weights affect actual dieting behavior.
No outside funding/support was provided for this study. Portions of this paper were presented at the annual meeting of the North American Association for the Study of Obesity, Montreal, Canada, October 2001.
Nonstandard abbreviations: BMI, body mass index; GRWQ, Goals and Relative Weight Questionnaire.