It’s a bit of a movie stereotype: the stressed-out lead character
(usually female) gulping a pint of Haagen-Dazs mint chocolate chip while pouring out her heart to her plucky (usually thinner) friend. Boyfriend trouble! Lost job! Fashion failures! It all leads inevitably to the freezer.
Turns out that it’s true. Stress, especially when it’s chronic, can lead to impulsive eating and obesity, even in young kids. How? A new study published in the journal Pediatrics seeks to answer that question.
Researchers in rural upper New York state measured the body mass index (BMI) of 244 white nine year-olds, then rechecked their BMIs four years later. They also tallied a stressor score for each child: a combination of nine items that included poverty, single parent status, housing problems, family turmoil, and exposure to violence.
The study found that children with higher total stress scores at age 9 were more likely to be obese at age 13. Chronic stress seems to gradually erode the ability to self-regulate, particularly to delay gratification. This finding agrees with other recent research that shows that stressed kids eat more high fat and sugary foods than their non-stressed friends.
It’s becoming clearer with each new study that chronic stress has a number of effects, all of them bad, on children’s health. Obesity is just one consequence. The health effects of early childhood stress may be lifelong, too–more on that soon.