Health and weight (young people)

Healthy eating

The most important lesson that the young people we interviewed have learned is that there is no ‘quick fix’ solution when it comes to losing weight. It can take many months or even years to achieve a target weight so patience is required. In this section, young people talk about their experiences of trying to lose or maintain weight and what has worked for them as an individual.

The young people‘s experiences suggested that weight loss and keeping a healthy weight required them to change their eating and lifestyle habits. 
Lifestyle changes that had helped young people lose weight included:  

• Spending less time in front of the TV or computer
• Being more active by walking to school, for example
• Taking regular exercise (see Exercise)
Changes to eating habits that helped included:

• Eating breakfast everyday
• Eating more fruit and vegetables
• Having smaller food portions
• Eating more slowly 
• Cutting down or avoiding food high in saturated fat and sugar
• Healthy snacking (like a piece of fruit)

Jess thinks that people should eat what they want but should avoid food that has little or no...

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Age at interview: 19
Sex: Female
I think people should eat what they want basically. But don’t eat more than you need. And try to have 5-a-day and do some kind of exercise even if it’s just running up and down stairs or... That’s what I think people should do [laugh] as hard as it might be. I just think people should make better choices like if you’re having, if you go out and have like salmon and chips usually why not have salmon and jacket potato and salad because you always get that option as well. Or if you want to have chips then don’t have a dessert and have some fruit.
And do you think because sometimes, you know, as you say people don’t always make those choices do they? And why do you think that is?
[Sigh] I don’t know [laugh]. Because it, it supposedly tastes nicer and I think it. I think that if you, your palate’s accustomed to eating that kind of food then no other kind of food hits that, hits that spot like that does. And I think you’ve got to go at it strongly for a couple of weeks until you start thinking actually that tastes like fat and I don’t want to eat pure fat.
Do you think there are other things that might sort of make it difficult for people to make certain kinds of choices?
I think there’s, there’s loads of difficulties for people like whether it be cost or whatever but if you’re determined and if you want a healthy lifestyle and. It’s not just about body weight, it’s about your insides as well I think. And how you feel in your brain and I think, I think that we need to start looking or targeting people and looking at why is a ready meal so much cheaper than a packet of vegetables. And it just seems wrong and maybe try and get people to grow in their back garden or do something that helps people to get fresh, nice food again.
And well why do you think that, you know, like a frozen ready meal or whatever? Why do you think that’s cheaper than?
Because it’s full of rubbish.

[laugh] Right.

Because it’s full of crap. Because it’s got no nutrient or nothing of value. it’s just got all, like sausages. It’s just got all fat pumped in them, disgusting pieces of meat that they just scrape off and I mean some of the stuff that you see that we have to look at on our course and you look at it and people say like, ‘I wouldn’t even feed my dog that. It’s disgusting’ [laugh].

Sky describes a typical 'healthy eating' day.

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Age at interview: 17
Sex: Female
Eating healthily what does that mean? What kind of things do you have? What do you consider to be healthy food?
On a typical day I’d have porridge at breakfast, for breakfast, my dad makes that. And then at break time I’d have an apple. At lunch I’d have a cheese and tomato ketchup sandwich. And my dad makes like a little salad for me and my mum and my dad. And then a chocolate bar, like a little BreakAway or whatever. When I get home I’ll have a cup of tea and then we’d have an evening meal. It might be spaghetti bolognese or stuff like vegetables and noodles, something like that. I might have a pudding afterwards if I’m feeling particularly adventurous. I might not it all depends on what mood I’m in. But that’s about a typical day for me.
Why is difficult to change eating and lifestyle habits?
Every young person we talked to accepted that changing old habits was not easy. There was always the possibility of slipping back, particularly when excess weight didn’t drop off as quickly as they hoped. This tended to happen when:
• Friends continued to eat the food that they were trying to avoid
• Working for school exams
• They were the only one in their home/family trying to eat different and healthier food

Reg finds it very difficult to cope with having her little brother'’s '‘nice'’ food around the house.

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Age at interview: 13
Sex: Female
And so when you said that you keep having a relapse, what do you mean by relapse? Explain?


Well, you do really well and then you like think, “Oh I'm going to have a chippy”. And then you're like, “Oh I'll start that tomorrow”, but it never happens. And…
And why do you think that happens?
Well, I've got a younger brother and we've got all these sort of stuff in house for him and then that's just like a bit, a bit of a temptation. So, it's a bit difficult.
Is it hard to control yourself when there's kind of temptation around?
Yeah. And how old is your brother?
He's, I think he's seven now.
And does he have any problems with his weight?
No. Right. And so, I mean from what you're saying, are you saying that you have to kind of watch what you're eating?
But he doesn't have to?
How does that make you feel?
I think it's unfair. And sometimes when he gets right nice stuff and I'm sat there eating, I don't know, fish, chips, and mushy peas and it's just not right.
And what does he have then that's nice?
Pizza. He has, when his friends come over, he's got like them chocolate dips and he has them like once a week. And we've always got sweets in the house as well and ice cream. And crisps.
So, it's difficult.

Alex has asked her family not to give her boxes of sweets for Christmas and talks about the...

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Age at interview: 14
Sex: Female
Sometimes I think, find it hard, and I just think, “Why am I doing it?” But then, just like little things like Christmas, like selection boxes, I gave them like to my cousins and things, and I just told people not to buy them me. Because I think, “If they’re there, I’m going to want to eat them.” And like if my sister’s got one, my sister will not eat it in front of me. Or like if she, like if she’s got one, I’ll say, “Oh, it don’t matter, it don’t matter. You can eat it.” But then she’ll be like, “Are you sure?” And then she’ll like offer me one and I’ll say, “No.” And she, and then it makes her feel bad with like while she’s eating it. So just like, things like that. And for Easter, like people like say, “Do you want an Easter egg?” And I’ll say, “No, I’ll just like have money. Or whatever you’re going to spend on an Easter egg, just get, put towards something else,” or something like that. And it’s just made it a lot easier.
Because then, just like if you think like a biscuit barrel, we used to have like a big one and there used to always be like, just like odd chocolate bars and stuff like that for when people come round, and it used to be like on the kitchen side. So I just used to think, “Oh, I right want one.” But then, like now we don’t have it, because then it’s not there. And it’s just, just like, you just think, “Oh, what can I have to…?” Like when I come in from school I’m always hungry and think, “Oh, what can I have?” And then like, we just like, my mum just buys like Special K like snack bars and things like that, that are a lot better for me than like when I used to come I used to have crisps and things like that. So it’s changed a lot and it’s helped.
Before like things, like my mum used to just go to the supermarket and just buy things what we liked. But now she’s more like, she watches what she buys. Like, we don’t have fizzy pop any more. And that’s, I think that’s helped a lot as well. Because you don’t think about it when it’s just fizzy pop, but when you think all the sugar in it, it’s just, and then just like, instead of buying like Walkers crisps, she’ll buy Snack-a-Jacks and healthier versions of things.
And so why has she started buying different things?
Because I think she’s realised as well that they’re not like good for you and things like that. And it helps as well at home, ‘cause my sister, she’s younger, so it like gets my sister into the habit of not eating such bad things as well.

But some young people were so scared of ending up ill because of their weight that they stuck with their new, healthier lifestyle and eating habits (see Health problems associated with being overweight).

At first, Bella found it hard to give up all the food she liked to eat. She steered clear of them after she was told that she was a borderline diabetic.

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Sex: Female
When they told me, it were like before Christmas. I didn’t eat any chocolate at all during Christmas. I stopped myself and that. I had the odd, the odd few crisps and the odd few sweets. But it’s like you don’t have that much and you cut down on a lot and you just stop yourself from eating. Because you know if I, well if you see it, if you’ve been told it, and it’s like a wake-up call. And you just wake yourself up and you’re just like, “Well, I don’t want to do that and, and I really don’t want to have medication all, for the rest of your life.” And you just stop yourself from there and then. It doesn’t matter if you get hungry and that, because you just stop yourself and that because you don’t want to become diabetic and you don’t want to be on medication for your, rest of your life. And you, it, you are, I do cut down. It’s like I always used to drink fizzy pops and that, but I stopped from drinking fizzy pop and like orange juice. I have, I do, the only fizzy pop I drink is Diet Coke. And, it’s like, I try and avoid sugars and that, but sometimes on the odd occasion I’ll probably have something which I know I shouldn’t do. But some, well, like I said, it is hard. But cracking down on it, it’s just, you just, it’s like a wake-up call and you know you shouldn’t be doing it and it’s hard to, it’s hard to give up. But you don’t want to be on medication and you don’t want to like do this. So you just continually do it. So you just try and stop yourself and help yourself.

For the young people who found it difficult to make these changes by themselves, the following helped: 

• Joining a weight management programme
• Learning about nutrition
• Support from family and friends
Weight management programmes
A diet that promises massive weight loss in record time  is short-term and usually leads to temporary results. A weight management programme aims to help people to lose weight and keep the weight off by permanently changing their eating habits and lifestyles.
We talked to young people who had just started a healthy eating programme and also to those who had finished it. Both groups reported a steady but gradual reduction of weight and size. Young people talked about setting up realistic targets on a long-term basis. Those who have been managing their weight for a long period were pleased with the results; one person had lost six and a half stone in two years and another about four stone in one year.

Naz and Anaan discuss the importance of setting realistic targets when trying to lose weight and...

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Age at interview: 17
Sex: Female
Naz' You have to set a goals that are possible.
Anaan' Yes positive goals.
Naz' Positive goals.
Anaan' That can happen.
Like? What are your goals?
Naz' Like now was drop a dress size by the end of, well drop a dress size by August and that is possible.
Anaan' Because that’s three months.
Naz' That’s three months. Was it you that said, you said eight pounds in how many weeks was it?
Anaan' 12. But that was possible, because for an adult, a healthy weight loss is a pound a week, so that was because eight pounds in twelve weeks is achievable.
Naz' Its like losing two stone in four weeks is impossible or…
Anaan' Yes.
Naz' It takes about a week is it, or a week and a half to lose a pound? So if you think about it takes you just 3lb to lose a month. That is possible but two stones in two months is not possible at all.
Anaan' To be honest, what I found with SHINE and what I learnt and everything was that what I was eating actually wasn’t that bad. My diet itself was actually quite healthy. Because I was having a bit of everything. I did usually have my eight glasses of water a day. I did usually have three to five portions of fruit and veg a day, and you know, I was doing all those things. It wasn’t what I was eating that was bad it was the fact that I’m just lazy. I don’t do enough exercise. That really was mostly my problem.
So SHINE, it has made me more aware of that, and its made me want to do more exercise, by, they help me find out a way that I could help get, like free sessions, so do different physical activities, through like the NHS and they also like made us more aware of different places you could go to get these kind, the help on these of things. And like how much physical activity you would, you need, you know, to balance out what you’re eating. So, for example, the more you ate, the more you need, exercise you needed to do. Or like if you eat a certain amount of calories a day, you’d need to do a certain amount of calories to burn some of that off. Whereas if you eat the same, you’re going to stay the same, but if you did less activities during the day than what you’re eating you are going to put more weight on. So it was just things like that that made me more aware that I did need to do more exercise rather than just sit around and just eat food.

Emily thinks that a weight management programme has helped her to lose weight.

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Sex: Female
So how much did you weigh when you first came here?
Well when I first came I was 11 stone something, but because I’d lost a little bit of weight when we got the letter, so when I started losing weight I was actually 12 stone. Which is, was a bit of a shock for me ‘cos I never used to weight myself either. So, I think it, that was a bit of a shock for me.
Right. And so that’s you’ve lost weight?
And how much did you lose?
30 pounds.
Which I think if you convert it into stones, that’s about 2 pounds and, 2 stones 2 pounds I think.
Okay, yeah.
I think roughly. And so now I’ve gone from like 12 stone to like 9 stone 7 so, and it feels great as well.
What do you think has been the most useful thing about coming here?
Well there’s the support that you get, there’s, you, you have so many people who are willing to support you. You have people who are in the same situation as you, who people, who’ve been in the same situation as you, you have people who know what it’s like and things like that.
If you have a problem or if you have like just a total collapse, you know, you’ve got people who will just pick you back up. And I think that’s been the most thing about it, the most important thing that I’ve had for me.
Being on a weight management programme was described by Duncan, as a ‘rollercoaster’ experience. His weight fluctuated up and down and some weeks it stayed the same which he found confusing. Those who joined a weight management programme especially designed for young people found that meeting others of similar age and with similar experiences (e.g. being bullied) helped them a lot.

Duncan's weight fluctuated during the year that he was on a weight management programme.

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Sex: Male
Well my story sort of basically started in 2007 in about April, because that’s when I, that’s when I first started to lose weight. Started at 16 stone 13lbs, which is pretty much 17 stone and I’m now 12 stone 5, and I think I’ve pretty much maintained that for the last 2 or 3 months, since about May-ish, end of May beginning of June, so it’s a bit of a rollercoaster year ish. It sort of, it sort of went up and down and sort of stayed stable for a couple of weeks where it didn’t do anything and then it, then some weeks it came off more than others and then some weeks it would jump up, jump back up quite a bit. But got to target eventually. I mean I’ve been basically doing it because, well I‘ve been doing, going to the gym two or three times a week, I walk my dog everyday basically it’s just been a change of routine, so sort of from sort of eating quite a lot and exercising not a lot [laughs] [and sort of switching it over a little bit to exercising a lot and eating, well not really not eating a lot but not eating as much.
So sort of, it’s been a bit of a lesson really, sort of teaching me what’s good and bad some, yes well relatively. But yes it’s been, certainly the first month was interesting, certainly difficult but yes once I got into the routine it just sort of became second nature. And now I don’t think about it at all I just sort of go on auto pilot. So, yeah.

Chelsea talks about her experience of joining a weight management programme for young people.

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Age at interview: 17
Sex: Female
Well I’m Chelsea and I’m age seventeen now. I’ve lost six and half stone up to now. Before I lost all my weight I was nearly seventeen stone.
And I didn’t feel comfortable with my weight. I didn’t do any exercise at all. I didn’t … wasn’t eating the right foods in right portion sizes. I was just really overweight.
And then I just … I was just getting bullied all the time and nobody wanted to be with me. I was always on my own in my bedroom doing my own thing.
And then I found… then I just really started to pick up, went to a group called SHINE (Self Help Independence, Nutrition and Exercise) that really built up my confidence. I started to lose weight. At first when I started, it started coming off of me slowly. And I thought, “Well it’s never going to come off me”.
“I’m just going to lose a couple of pounds and that’s it. It’s just going to stay on me”. And then it just carried on coming off and off. And I just gradually lost it. It’s took me two years to lose the six and half stone. But it has really helped me a lot.
I’ve made a whole range of new friends. I’ve started doing more exercise, whereas I never used to any at all. I, now I can talk in front of people that I never used to be able to do before.
I used to do a lot of things that I don’t do now. I help out at certain gyms.
Certain swimming baths if anything needs doing I’m like there to help and things like that. I missed a couple of, like a year out of school well on and off at school …
… because of being bullied. I got pushed down concrete steps before I lost all my weight.
And then when I started to lose my weight, everybody was realising that I was changing and no, no one could stop me from changing who I were to like I am now. And now people on the street look at me and say, “Aren’t you changed?”
And I just think I’m right proud of myself. I just think well if I didn’t change my life style, then I wouldn’t have been here now. If I’d carried on the way I was going I’d have not been here now. I’d have just done something.
So. That’s it really.
So there’s been a lot of positive changes for you lately?
Yes there has.
I got up from being low confidence. I… when I first started SHINE (Self Help Independence, Nutrition and Exercise) I just used, used to sit, for six weeks of the program I just sat in a corner, didn’t talk to anybody. I wouldn’t even talk to any of the friends that I’d made. I just sat in the corner.
And then after my six weeks, I just thought to myself, I’ve got to start getting involved otherwise it’s not going to change.
So I started talking to people, getting involved with other things. And I never used to do any activity. I never used to go the sports, the gym. I never used to do anything. I thought it would, if I just went to that that place, that program that helps you, then it would all of just come off of me. But we all had to work as, so I had to work as well as that program working for me.
Learning about nutrition
Understanding the basics of nutrition helped young people to take responsibility for eating more healthily. Community-based weight management programmes for young people such as SHINE (Self Help Independence, Nutrition and Exercise), Watch it! (a programme delivered by Leeds Primary Care Trust and MEND (Mind, Exercise, Nutrition… Do it! Programme) taught health and nutrition. This gave people:

• The ability and confidence to read and analyse the nutritional information on food packets
• An understanding of the importance of a balanced diet; including food from the four food groups
• An understanding of calories in terms of the amount consumed and amount burned
This helped young people to both stick with healthy eating and to make progress toward achieving their target healthy weight.

Shannon talks about what she has been doing differently to try and get to a healthy weight.

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Sex: Female
How do you feel about that when you’re, you know, SHINE’s volunteer’s told you that that’s how much overweight you are?

Well, it’s, it is like you don’t think you’re that overweight but then when you hear how much you are overweight it’s shocking.But like you think if you do this and you do and you do lots of exercise and things like that then you’re going to lose quite a bit of weight but it takes more than just exercise.

You don’t have, it’s like SHINE’s volunteer (Self Help, Independent, Nutrition and Exercise) said, we don’t diet which she doesn’t tell us what to eat, what not to eat and things like that. She just says you can eat anything but eat it like, like if you have bread not have three four slices, have two. And it’s better to have brown bread than white bread and things like that. So that’s like how I, that’s how I like try and get my weight off.

Then we’ve got a portion plate from SHINE that had our meat, we had our veg, we had our potatoes, our cheese and stuff like that on it. And it told you, like pictures for it like there’s a treasure chest for cheese. And then there’s a circle for like, you know like if you have spaghetti bolognaise that’s your bolognaise bit and spaghetti around the outside. Triangle for your meat and stuff like that. So that helped.

Because I used to have more than my mum to eat and more than my brother. But now I just like have just a bit more than my brother but my mum has more than me.

How come you were having so much do you think?

Because, I don’t know. I just I think I used I have actually slowed down eating my food. It used to take me like five minutes to eat a Sunday dinner. But now it takes me like twenty to half an hour sometimes. And then it makes me full more.

So if like, if I slow down eating my food then I’m more full so I don’t need as much.


Shannon loves cooking and is careful not to use too much ‘fat in her dishes.

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Sex: Female
Who makes all your dinners. Is it your mum?

Well, I like cooking. So I’m like a big fan of cooking. So I’ll sometimes cook tea. I cook like spaghetti bolognaise and I sometimes actually make my own pizza.

Stuff like that, so I know how much I need of each and I don’t put as much fattening stuff on. But like I once cooked my Sunday dinner and do you know like roast potatoes? I didn’t do it in fat. I used this do you know that one calorie spray thing?I  used that and then like things like that that I do different. But then my mum if she’s doing a Sunday dinner she’ll do it in oil.

But like she’ll do certain things that are healthy and certain things that aren’t healthy. So it just makes it nice to eat. But healthy as well. So like I’ll have more veg than potatoes now and I used to have more potatoes than veg. 

Support from family and friends
Support from family and friends is crucial in helping young people succeed in achieving a healthier lifestyle and reaching their target weight. Many talked of how their mothers no longer cooked with cream or butter; how they included healthier options in the family shopping and allowed the young person to cook in a ‘healthier way’ for the whole family. In several cases a mother or father did a weight management programme alongside their son or daughter. But not everyone we spoke to felt they had the support of their parents (see Food and eating).

Carrie and her mum discussed the possible reasons why she was putting on weight and decided that...

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Sex: Female
I spoke to my mum, because my mum and I are like really close. So we get, get along quite well. And when I put on weight, so does she sort of thing.
We get along quite easily on that sort of thing. And we both, and she, we talked about sort of why I might be putting on weight. And one of the issues was possibly more that, where I was doing a lot more exercise. So we decided, you know, what sports can I get involved in. And there was a trampolining class that was on a Thursday evening. So I got involved with that. And then we also thought about what we were eating. Because when we first came over we were staying with friends, so we didn’t have much choice in what we were eating. There were sort of, you know, ready, the meals were there already, and there was a, access to sort of fizzy drinks and junk food all the time and that sort of thing. But when we moved into our own little terraced house, my mum was sort of, we decided to s-, start trying to eat more healthily and take out the fizzy drinks and the junk food and that sort of thing, which I’d never had before. I don’t, as a, as a rule we don’t have crisps or fizzy drinks at home normally. So when they were suddenly available, I think we probably sort of had fun partying really if you like and had as much as we could. But we sort of cut that, cut down on that. And then lately we’ve realised that we possibly put a little bit too much on our plates. So maybe I tend to sort of overeat, or my eyes are bigger than my stomach and I put too much. And then I, you know, and then afterwards I feel really, really full. When perhaps I should just eat until I’m, you know, just full, and then, you know, sort of that keeps me satisfied. So it’s the amount that I was eating that we’ve also sort of cut down.
And so you’ve  managed to lose the weight that you gained?
So the sort of the weight and size that you are now, you’re happy with, with that?
Yes, I am, yes, yes. I, since starting college in September, I’m doing, I’m doing a lot more trampolining as well. And it’s getting a little bit more competitive and stuff. So as well, I’m not losing weight now, but I am losing sort of on my hips. So I’m getting, my sh-, my shape’s improving, but not necessarily weight. Because I’m putting on muscle and losing fat at the same time. But I’m, sort of I’m happier with my shape rather than... So I’m not as worried now.
Parents felt that it was their responsibility to provide a healthy eating pattern but found it very frustrating when their children did not agree with their food choices. It could also be upsetting to see children try to lose weight and not succeed.  Community-based healthy eating programmes were found to be very useful by parents too.

Mary and her son attended a healthy eating programme together and she thought it was helpful and fun.

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Age at interview: 49
Sex: Female
I just came across it and then signed up for it and they were, they were very, very good and it was, it was really, really good. I mean he keeps, he would say it’s the only time he really felt something, he did something that really made a difference. And he was so proud when, they got the final measurements and he’d, he’d actually lost, I don’t know, four or five inches off his waist and everything. And it was just really about, you know, we were really committed to it and, and the eating and everything. I mean it still didn’t get him eating a lot of other things but it did stop him eating certain things and it made me far more conscious buying things. And he was doing the exercise twice a week, you know, so which was a big help and they made it fun as well. It was fun sort of things. So yeah, I mean I think it’s a fantastic programme.
I think it one of the things that helped him was I think the feeling that you could change things because I think at times he’s felt quite hopeless about it. He’ll say, “Oh, I’ve tried this and I’ve tried that.” I suppose we, we probably never tried in a structured sort of way so, you know, we’d do things like, “Well, okay, we’re not going to have any chocolate in the house. We’re not going to have any biscuits, or crisps.” Or something. But this was kind of a structured way and, and you were kind of shown that you could change things and you could make a difference. And I think it was realising because that is one of the things that he has a bit of a hang up about, is, “I’m the only fat kid.”
Whereas as that it wasn’t an issue, you know, because everybody else was in the same, same situation. If, if not I would think one or two even a little bit worse, you know. So I think he, he was it just seemed to motivate him I think. It was the fact that, and maybe, I mean he’s never said that to me directly, maybe the fact that, you know, I was spending four hours a week with him doing this. Maybe he felt, “This is serious. We’re doing something serious about it.” Rather than oh, we’ll try and do this and we’ll try and do that, you know.
The experience of losing weight made young people confident in their ability to manage their weight both in the present and in the future.
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Alex was obese but now describes herself as overweight. Her aim is to go down to a weight that is healthy for her age and height.

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Age at interview: 14
Sex: Female
So you think you were overweight before you came?
And when you say overweight, what do you mean?
Like just, not massively overweight, but like I were in the obese category to start off with. But now I think I’ve dropped down to overweight category. So I’ve lost quite a bit. And it’s helped me a lot with like school and things, and friendship groups and things like that.
Because you said you were in the obese group, and what does that mean?
It means like, you’ve got your underweight, and then you’ve got like average, and then obese, and then morbidly obese. And I were, I were like overweight, but it like, just, I were just like in the obese category. But I’ve kept it going and so I’ve like lost it. So I’m maintaining on overweight now. So if I carry on I should be average for my height.

Last reviewed July 2017.

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