teen pregnancyHigh school is a time for social and physical development, but it can also be a time when teens take risks that could have long-term ramifications. According to researchers from Penn State, obesity rates may have a direct impact on early pregnancy rates. The study, published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, suggests young obese women in high school may have fewer chances to experience social, romantic or sexual relationships increasing the likelihood of risky sexual behavior and early pregnancy.

Researchers evaluated the behaviors of more than 4,200 female high school students. The students attended one of 102 high schools located in the United States. The schools were evaluated based on the percentage of obese students attending the school. Obesity percentages did not affect rate of pregnancy in non-obese students, but it did affect rate of pregnancy in obese students. Pregnancy rate in non-obese students remained higher in school populations where less than 17% of students fell into the obese category. However, when the percentage of obese students measured at least 17%, pregnancy rate of obese students surpassed that of non-obese students.

Researchers were unable to find a clear, definitive reason for the increased rate of pregnancy in obese students, but they theorize it may have something to do with difficulty establishing sexual relationships. Obese females may be less likely to find a sexual partner in high school, but when they do find a partner they may be more willing to practice risky sexual behavior, including unprotected sex. Researchers also noted obese students were more likely to consume alcohol or drugs prior to sex, increasing the likelihood of unprotected sex or risky sexual behavior.

There is no “one-size-fits-all approach to understanding adolescent pregnancy” claims Michelle Frisco, study author. “We need to teach all young women to make better and smarter decisions.” Current teen sexual health education is presented to all students in the same structured, reserved manner. Based on this study, sexual education may need to be personalized or at least customized to a particular subset of teens to decrease rate of risky sexual behavior and teen pregnancy, especially in obese teens.

Source: Jennifer B. Kane, Michelle L. Frisco. Obesity, school obesity prevalence, and adolescent childbearing among U.S. young women. Social Science & Medicine. 2013, July. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2013.04.005.