April 16th, 2012
12:01 AM ET
When young girls live in a stressful home where violence, depression or other disruptions are common they are more likely to become obese by age 5, compared to children raised in more stable homes. And when preschool girls witness a couple of bad events at once, they have an even higher risk of becoming obese, according to research presented in this week's medical journal Pediatrics.
The study did not find the same obesity patterns in boys. Researchers aren't sure why, but suspect that it's because boys may cope with stress, in part, by being more physically active.
So why are girls gaining weight when home life is stressful?
"Potentially families who are experiencing these stressors may be managing the eating habits of their children in a different way," says study author Shakira F. Suglia, Epidemiologist and Assistant Professor at Columbia University in New York.
But she says that's not the whole story.
Suglia and fellow researchers studied the records from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study that looked at mother-child pairs from 20 major cities in the United States. They identified 1,605 preschoolers and found that almost 60% of them had experienced at least one of the following stressors: domestic violence, hunger, moving frequently or living in a shelter, a father in prison, a depressed mother or one who abused alcohol or drugs.
The experts suggest that one of the reasons these factors tie into weight gain in girls has to do with how a mom relates to her child. If a mother is depressed or there is violence in the home, for instance, she may not be emotionally available to take care of the child.
"Food may be used in excess as a tool for consoling or pacifying emotional needs of the child by the parent or to self-soothe by the child," the study explains.
And often when people are stressed they reach for comfort foods that tend to be fatty or sweet and full of calories. But the researchers point out that even if a child mimics mom's unhealthy eating patterns that this does not account for all of the weight gain.
Another possible explanation is that the child is experiencing the same stressors as the mom and that this is affecting her biologically. The child's stress response system gets out of whack - producing high levels of stress hormones which scientists suspect are linked to gains in belly fat and compulsive eating. And if mom isn't available to teach her child how to handle a stressful situation and develop what researchers call self-regulation, children tend to gravitate towards things that bring instant gratification - like sweets and high fat foods.
"They are not only learning that they like to eat certain things [unhealthy foods] but that this could also be a way to manage stress,” says Suglia.
Previous studies in children have found that, when facing these stressors, girls tend to internalize their behavior more than boys. They often withdraw, feel depressed and sad. Boys, on the other hand, more often externalize their behavior by becoming aggressive, impulsive, and having trouble sitting still. The researchers in this recent study did not look into the reasons for the differences in weight gain between boys and girls; they simply found that it existed. They say more studies are needed to further explore these sex differences.
Scientists know that if you're an obese child then you're more likely to be an obese teen and in turn, an obese adult. And being too heavy can be harmful to our health potentially leading to heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and certain cancers. Experts point out that addressing the factors that increase the odds for childhood obesity is imperative.
Suglia says that when pediatricians and primary care doctors talk to families about obesity prevention, that the discussion needs to go beyond eating habits and exercise. Doctors should ask about what's going on in the home and offer families referral services and programs to help them cope with the stressors in their life.
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