A new study says that physically active older teens are not naturally inclined to eat healthier foods than their non-active peers.
And there seemed to be no association between body mass index (BMI) values and levels of physical activity.
Dr. Catherine Sabiston, of McGill University, and P.R.E. Crocker, of the University of British Columbia (UBC) conducted a study of 900 Vancouver-area teenagers in Grades 10 through 12.
Sabiston said that overall boys reported participating in more physical activities but ate a less-healthy diet than did girls.
Also, contrary to established assumptions, researchers found that people with healthier BMI values were no more likely to be physically active than those with higher, unhealthier values.
Surprisingly, it was the latter who were more likely to eat a healthier diet.
"A lot of people are surprised but when you think about it, BMI doesn't have a huge impact on physical activity. And in terms of diet, it actually makes sense that someone who is not happy with their body might try to eat more healthily," Dr. Sabiston said.
Sabiston said that the results showed only a very weak correlation between physical activity and healthy eating, and virtually no correlation between an individual's BMI and his or her level of physical activity.
The study was conducted to test a comprehensive model of physical activity and healthy eating behaviour in teens aged 15 to 18, partially in response to two perceived problems with existing research in the field.
"First of all, older adolescents are an unrepresented sample in research studies," Sabiston said.
"Researchers have generally looked at youths or at university populations and have completely missed this unique, intermediate age group," she added.
She said that secondly many researchers have traditionally treated physical activity and healthy eating as separate phenomena, and have only rarely explored their similarities and differences simultaneously.
Researchers also found a significant difference in the way boys and girls approach physical activity and healthy diet.
Sabiston said that boys need to attach value to a healthy diet and feel confident in their ability to follow a healthy diet before they'll actually do it.
She said that girls, regardless of how they feel about their ability to eat a healthy diet, only need to feel it is important to do so before they'll eat properly.
This study said that one cannot assume that someone who is physically active necessarily eats a healthy diet - or the reverse, that someone who is more sedentary or has a high BMI by definition eats a diet of junk food, she explained.
This study drives home the point that as a society, we're primarily focused on extrinsic things like appearance and weight versus the betterment of health," Sabiston said.
"From a public health perspective, this means we should probably focus on people who are at a healthy weight or even underweight, and emphasize that healthy eating is not just about weight-change," she added.
The study is published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.