Objective: The magnitude of environmental vs. genetic effects on BMI, diet, and physical activity (PA) is widely debated. We followed a sibling cohort (where individuals shared households in childhood and adolescence) to young adulthood (when some continued sharing households and others lived apart) to examine the role of discordant environments in adult twins’ divergent trends in BMI and health behaviors and to quantify the variation in BMI and behavior among all siblings that is attributable to environmental and additive genetic effects.
Research Methods and Procedures: In the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, siblings sharing households for ≥10 years as adolescents (mean age = 16.5 ± 1.7 years; N = 5524) were followed into adulthood (mean = 22.4 ± 1.8 years; N = 4368), self-reporting PA, sedentary behavior, and dietary characteristics. Adult BMI and adolescent z scores were derived from measured height and weight.
Results: Compared with those living together, twins living apart exhibited greater discordance in change in BMI, PA, and fast food intake from adolescence to adulthood. Adolescent household environments accounted for 8% to 10% of variation in adolescent fast food intake and sedentary behaviors and 50% of variation in adolescent overweight. Adolescent household effects on PA were substantially greater in young adulthood (accounting for 50% of variation) vs. adolescence. Young adult fast food intake was significantly affected by young adult household environment, accounting for 12% of variation.
Discussion: These findings highlight important environmental influences on BMI, PA, and fast food intake during the transition to adulthood. Household and physical environments play an important role in establishing long-term behavior patterns.