Study: Moms' Stress Tied to Kids' Overweight
Yeah, that's what stressed-out moms needed: someone telling them that their stress may be helping make their kids fat.
A study published in today's issue of the journal Pediatrics looked at the relationships in low-income families between kids' weight (as expressed via BMI, or body mass index), the availability of ample food in their homes, and their moms' stress. Using data from the federal National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), researchers led by Craig Gundersen, associate professor in the department of agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois, found that kids ages 3-10 who lived in "food secure" homes (more on that in a moment) and whose mothers reported feeling stressed were more likely to be overweight than kids living in "food insecure" homes with similarly stressed-out mothers.
"Increases in maternal stressors increased the probability of being overweight or obese for children in food secure households but decreased these odds for children in food insecure households," Gundersen and his colleagues write. The association was strongest among kids ages 3 to 10; older kids, the authors surmise, may have more outlets for relieving the stress they're subject to at home, things like sports and social activities. The authors add that the results of this study can't be extrapolated to middle- and upper-income families -- and note that someone ought to look into that.
The research focused on mothers' external sources of stress related to finances, family structure, and physical health, and on mom's self-reported feelings of anxiety and depression. Mothers' stress was assumed to transfer to their children and served as a proxy for kids' stress in general; youngsters' individual sources of stress weren't examined independently in this study.
"Food security" is a term used by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to describe the degree to which a household (or an individual) has access to enough food to sustain healthy, active lifestyles for everyone who lives there. Gundersen's study includes as an appendix the questionnaire used to determine whether a household is food secure; some of the questions are heartbreaking ("In the last 12 months did you or other adults in your household ever not eat for a whole day because there wasn't enough money for food?").
Still, as Gundersen points out, the vast majority of households living below the poverty line -- some 70 percent -- are considered food secure -- though the term "food security" doesn't speak to the quality of the food or the balance of the meals.
The researchers figure that kids, like many of us adults, may turn to food as a source of solace when things get stressful. In houses where there's plenty of food, it's easy for stressed kids to chow down on enough food to make them fat. Kids in food insecure houses might well want to go the comfort-food route, too, but if the pantry's bare, they're not going to gain weight.
I asked Gundersen whether his findings in fact amounted to pointing a guilty finger at already stressed moms, essentially blaming them for their kids' overweight.
"We perceived this not so much as there's something the mother could do to relieve her stress as that these external stressors are things they cannot do much about," he said. Instead of blaming the moms, he suggests, his findings highlight the need for programs to help them deal with the stressful situations in their lives by teaching them to better manage their limited fiscal resources or providing access to health insurance.
"The idea is not to blame the mother but to make things easier for the mother to alleviate stress," Gundersen explains. It's possible, he suggests, that that could end up helping to reduce the incidence of overweight and obesity.
Do these findings ring true with you? And whose job is it, anyway, to "make things easier for the mother to alleviate stress"?
Jennifer LaRue Huget
September 2, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories: Nutrition and Fitness
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