Children who have gone through trying times
are more likely to be overweight by age 15, a new study suggests. Stress in
childhood has been associated with a greater risk of becoming overweight,
although the link isn't always consistent from study to study, researchers
"I felt like I was seeing a lot of
children who had experienced stress early in their lives later gain weight
pretty rapidly," Dr Julie Lumeng at the University of Michigan Medical
School told Reuters Health. "There has been quite a bit of research looking
at stress in the lives of adults leading to weight gain, but it has not been
studied as much in children," said Lumeng, who led the new study.
"We did this particular study because
it looked at simply 'events' that had occurred in children's lives and then
asked mothers to rate the events in terms of how much of an impact they
had," Lumeng said. The researchers used data from the Eunice Kennedy
Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early
Child Care and Youth Development.
mothers of 848 children enrolled in the study completed surveys when their
children were 4, 9 and 11 years old. They were asked if any of 71 different
life events had occurred during the previous year, and they rated the impact of
the event on a scale from -3 (extremely negative) to zero (no effect) to +3
Negative life events
Four categories of negative life events
were studied: health problems in the family; work, school or financial
stability; emotional aspects of family relationships; and family structure,
routine and care giving.
kids' height and weight were measured at age 15. Teens with a BMI above the
85th percentile for age and gender based on CDC growth charts were defined as
Of the 848 children, 260 were considered
overweight and 488 were not. 30% of the overweight children had experienced a
significant number of negative life events, compared to 22% of the
Experiencing many negative life events was
tied to a nearly 50% higher risk of being overweight, versus no negative events.
The associations were strongest for negative events related to family physical
or mental health, among children of obese mothers and among children who waited
longer for food, the researchers report in the journal Paediatrics.
"The number of negative events that
had happened in a child's life predicted the likelihood that the child would be
overweight in adolescence," Lumeng wrote in an email.
"We thought this was important as well
because while lots of interventions focus on healthy eating and promoting more
exercise, if stress is related to children's risk of becoming overweight, this
could be a new focus for interventions," she said. The results were about
the same for boys as for girls.
"There is prior evidence in adults that
women may be more likely to 'stress eat' than men, so we thought that girls may
be more sensitive to the effects than boys."
"This was not the case, however,"
Lumeng said. It's also important to note the risk was greater for kids whose
mothers were obese. Obese mothers may have more obesity-promoting environments,
which could lead to their children being overweight as well, the researchers
point out. It could also contribute to some of the family health problems
reported as negative life events. "I think without a doubt that if you work
in the field of weight management, you often hear about challenging situations
that folks are coming from. Seeing this study just further documents what we're
already experiencing in the clinics," Dr Stephen Pont told Reuters Health.
Pont is Chair of the American Academy of Paediatrics
Provisional Section of Obesity. "This study starts to show that there may
be significant stressors that these children have experienced that has to some
degree resulted in the weight problem they have right now. If we understand
that, then maybe we can be more empathetic and not guilt or blame or look down
on them," said Pont. Family
support is crucial for managing both stress and weight issues.
Parents can help children get through
stressful events by talking to them and focusing on coping skills, Pont
said. "Conversations are very important," he said. "Sometimes we
can't know how a child is experiencing something unless we talk to them about
it. With anything regarding stress or behavioural
health, we recommend talking to your kids."
Parents can ask children how
they feel about any stressful life events. Pont cautioned that some kids may
not admit there's a problem and that younger children may not be able to
verbalise how they feel. In those cases, parents should look for other clues
like problems with friends or school, or unexplained headaches or stomach