Life stressors increase obesity risk in young girls
April 16th, 2012
12:01 AM ET

Life stressors increase obesity risk in young girls

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.

soundoff (32 Responses)
  1. A healthy Life

    Let's give our children a chance at life by making sure they have healthy eating habits and exercise daily. This starts at birth, diabetes during pregnancy can be very serious condition. A expecting mother will want to make sure her blood glucose levels never drop to low. She should always make sure she is eating the proper diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables. To gain more insight I have written a ebook on the subject- Children's Health Diabetes and Obesity What can we do to make a difference in a child's life-link- http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=B007Q4VWQE

    April 16, 2012 at 10:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. eroteme

    Zowie! Another 'research'! Why have other 'researches' not covered this in the past? I can imagine 'researchers' gathering in the morning, asking each other, 'what shall we research today? 'There are so many who are eager to learn what we 'research'.! 'We of course shall earn a bunch of dollars for our helpful efforts for this is how we make our living..'

    April 16, 2012 at 11:07 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Bob

      Zowie, another idiot who doesn't appreciate the value of science. Maybe you should go back to living in a cave like your caveman ancestors did. Oh, that's right, the earth is only 6000 years old and man never lived in caves. Oh, and that computer you are using to read this, just throw that away because a scientist was responsible for it. Your clothes, too. And your car. And your genetically engineered foods. And the cameras used in the Fox studio you love so much. And the microphone your Tea Party candidates use. Throw them all out and go back to your cave.

      April 16, 2012 at 13:36 | Report abuse |
  3. Sarah

    ... Well, I'm not gonna lie, I don't think I'd ever say this, but CNN has really opened my eyes! This is totally my life in a nutshell. I'm almost 19, and STILL obese. Even as a kid, I never understood why I couldn't lose weight. I mean, I exercised daily; I was in the country after all. Abuse in the house, mother depressed, father eventually in jail, and in the end, I'm STILL fat. Thanks to this article (and no, I'm not being sarcastic about this), I'm gonna make sure I'm not gonna be an obese adult due to this reason. Screw that; say goodbye to this terrible fat -.-

    April 16, 2012 at 12:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Bob

    I would like to suggest to the researchers to suggest that the onus should not be placed only on the parents. Stress is a reaction to current environmental conditions. Yes, maybe the environment is causing the stress in which case the environment needs to change.

    April 16, 2012 at 13:39 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Boyke

      Hmm, I think people are being a bit over criitcal here. I've been reading quite a bit about this cover and I've looked at other photoshoots that the girls have done previously. They are not size 8-10 (well not UK size anyway) so whilst I dislike the term plus size' they are more of a normal or average size. Italian Vogue often do rather racy shots, so seeing them breasts flying and in their underwear isn't new and the food angle surely it's that they actually eat the stuff!Refreshing and may many other magazines pick up the mantel.

      December 18, 2012 at 12:51 | Report abuse |
  5. GySgtG

    bad parenting is responsible for fat kids.

    April 16, 2012 at 14:00 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Bob

      Bad parenting is responsible for bad parenting. Go back far enough and you will see that a single cell creature was responsible for obese children.

      April 16, 2012 at 14:56 | Report abuse |
  6. Joan

    Start all babies off with a diet of human milk! That will reduce the obesity problem. Yes, our society has a lot of progress to achieve to enable such stress reducing benefits for both our mothers and our children. Is there anything more important?

    April 16, 2012 at 16:18 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Sara

      And what should those of us incapable of breast feeding give our babies? Not everyone is fortunate to be able to breastfeed.

      April 18, 2012 at 13:15 | Report abuse |
  7. Janet

    At first I thought the "stress" was that of a parent. Seriously, a child cannot become "obese" by his/herself. What are these parents buying and feeding these kids? Do these parents not "notice" that jr. is tubby when they buy their clothes? C'mon. Stop blaming the kids. Parents need to own up to caring for the health and well being of their offspring.

    April 16, 2012 at 19:22 | Report abuse | Reply
    • AW

      That's kind of the point the article is making. No one is "blaming the kids," but it's human nature to turn to comfort food under stress. When the household is in an uproar, the child is more likely to want high-calorie foods and the parent is less likely to have the emotional strength to say, "No, honey, no more cookies. You've had enough."

      This strikes home with me. I grew up in a very loving home, but I can track my childhood weight gain to specific time periods when bad things happened– a sibling's serious illness, a parent's accident and job loss, etc. Weight can get out of control very quickly while the parent is wrapped up in dealing with a crisis, and once a child is obese, it's really, really difficult to reverse. It's not too hard to keep the child from gaining more, but getting the extra off is next to impossible.

      April 17, 2012 at 12:12 | Report abuse |
  8. Sara

    Am I the only one offended that depression is listed up there with violence, prison and homelessness? I'm sorry that my brain is not chemically capable but I'm fairly certain my children don't suffer from it.

    April 18, 2012 at 13:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. expert parenting help

    Rather than feeling just feeling guilty parents need to recognize how much of an impact they can have in helping their teenager maintain a healthy weight. The world can be cruel place for an overweight teenager. ExpertParentingHelp.com.

    April 22, 2012 at 11:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Leo1234

    This article is very interesting because it brings a different perspective into why more children are becoming obese today. When I think of an obese child, I almost always turn to blaming the parents. Parents are supposed to help their child grow into a healthy individual by supplying them with nutritious foods and plenty of activity. I do agree with this article when it states that another reason for children gaining excessive weight is due to stress. You are not supposed to be stressed as a child. You are supposed to live carefree and enjoy the different aspects of growing up. Sometimes when parents are going through a hard time, their child/children feel the effects from it also. I remember times when my mother was very stressed out and I could tell. It made me sad and I wanted to help her, but knew I couldn't. I think that girls feel more sympathy and see the stress in their parents more than boys. Boys take out their frustration on other things and usually block out the negative. Even if a parent is going though a tough situation they should do their best to cover it up and not let their child notice. Their main focus needs to be on their child and their needs. I am not a parent, but I believe that children learn and grow from example. If a child is watching their parent go through a very difficult situation, they are going to act out in some way. The root to this topic stems from parenting. All in all, parents are the role models to their children. This article was just another insightful reason as to why we are seeing more childhood obesity today.

    April 24, 2012 at 10:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Umut

    Assuming that this true for an instant, how does a virus make you fat? Would it mess with your piaitutry gland? I'm just curious. If you're going to put that theory out there, I'd like to see the cause and effect behind it. Now, if I get sick during the winter, which I do a lot, I tend to lay around to get better which then takes me out of my exercise routine, and I have a hard time getting back into it until the weather turns nice again. However, that's just a lot of events that stack up and then I get lazy. Not really the fault of the virus. Would you find a virus? Probably, but I would say it's innocent.

    August 4, 2012 at 00:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Leigha Deister

    There is always in increasing trend in obesity these days as more and more people turn into a sedentary lifestyle..

    Consider our blog as well

    November 13, 2012 at 14:12 | Report abuse | Reply
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