Stress eating in children leads to obesity


When children overreact to stress, they may inadvertently be causing a physical reaction that puts them at risk for becoming overweight or obese.

“Our results suggest that some children who are at risk of becoming obese can be identified by their biological response to a stressor,” explained Lori Francis, associate professor of bio-behavioral health. “Ultimately, the goal is to help children manage stress in ways that promote heath and reduce the risks associated with an over- or under-reactive stress response.”

Children measured for stress and desire to eat

The research team looked at 43 children aged 5 to 9 years. They used the Trier Social Stress Test for Children to measure their reactions to stressors.

The cortisol in the children's saliva was measured before and after stress was introduced. The researchers measured the children’s desire to eat when not hungry by feeding them a filling lunch and then leaving snacks out, freely available, along with toys and activities. They were free to play or to eat.

“We found that older kids, ages 8 to 11, who exhibited greater cortisol release over the course of the procedure had significantly higher body-mass indices (BMI) and consumed significantly more calories in the absence of hunger than kids whose cortisol levels rose only slightly in response to the stressor,” Francis noted. “We also found that kids whose cortisol levels stayed high – in other words, they had low recovery – had the highest BMIs and consumed the greatest number of calories in the absence of hunger.”

Stressful environments may contribute

The study suggests that children who have poor responses to stress are at risk of becoming obese or overweight. In future studies, Francis wants to look at whether or not children living in stressful environments are more at risk for obesity.

“It is possible that such factors as living in poverty, in violent environments, or in homes where food is not always available may increase eating in the absence of hunger and therefore, increase children’s risk of becoming obese,” she concluded.

Source: Penn State, MedicalNewsToday


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