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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"?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  September 2, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness  
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I'm surprised there is no mention of whether the Mom's were also overweight.

It seems to me that children pick up the eating habits of their parents, particularly in the 3-10 y/o age because they depend on their parents to feed them. If Mom eats for emotional reasons then the kids -who may or may not be stressed- will eat in a similar fashion. I think a lot of eating falls back to habit. If you've grown up in a family where downing a pot of mac & cheese is the norm then that's what you think is normal too.

I have to wonder if teaching more effective emotional coping skills rather than focusing on financial management might help families just as much.

When you look at 12-step programs oftentimes when people stop their addictive behavior and work on getting a handle on their emotional situations they find that other problem areas of their lives are easier to straighten out.

Posted by: RoseG | September 2, 2008 9:05 AM | Report abuse

I completely understand this because this was my life. Shortly after I was born, my mother's mother dropped dead. Then, my sister was born prematurely. Between ages 3-10, there was rocky employment, three other siblings (inc. a disabled one) and just general stress in the home. I turned to food as a child. Interestingly, my mother did not weigh more than 150 pounds until well after I was overweight. I grew up fat and have always been fat. It is a hard thing to recognize that your obesity is rooted in your childhood- and that's how you have to tackle it. I'd love to know solutions to reversing it.

Posted by: DC adult | September 2, 2008 9:41 AM | Report abuse

"[The study] 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".

All I can say is: Huh? How does this show that stress in moms leads to overweight kids? There was no difference in the stress levels between the two groups' moms, right? So, how can one claim that is the issue?

Isn't the issue really food-secure vs. food-insecure?

Posted by: Ryan | September 2, 2008 10:03 AM | Report abuse

So... where's Dad in all this?

Is his absence maybe part of Mom's stress? Just wondering.

Posted by: Ellen | September 2, 2008 12:48 PM | Report abuse

Hi, Ryan: Good question. It was the combination of moms' stress and food security that was linked to kids' overweight: there was no such association where moms weren't as stressed.

Posted by: Jennifer Huget | September 2, 2008 1:05 PM | Report abuse

Overweight children are ABUSED children.

ANY mom with a fat kid needs to be taken to task for failing to protect the life of her child, and for increasing the expense to the AMERICAN TAXPAYERS FOR CLEANING UP MOM'S MESS. Children mirror the behavior of the parent. Overweight mom's = fat kids.

Fat Kids = diabetes
Diabetes = increased medicare expense
Increased Medicare Expense = higher taxes

Overweight kids are abused children!

Posted by: JBE | September 2, 2008 2:09 PM | Report abuse

Though I don't want to put people on too much of a guilt trip, I do think that when parents are stressed, they may be more caught up in their own problems than paying attention to their kids. I definitely saw the connection in my life.

There was a period in my childhood when my father's income was cut in half, and my mother was acting crazy, in part because she was strung out on the type of diet pills that are now illegal. They were fighting all the time and seemed to be on the verge of divorce.

Before this period my parents were very focused on proper nutrition in and outside of the home: they packed healthy school lunches; there was no junk food in the house; and we had balanced home-cooked dinner. Before this troubled time, they also made sure we were involved in physical activity: sports teams during the week and family-oriented outdoor activities on the weekend.

After the problems began, a lot of these good things stopped. We got money for lunch, which we spent on candybars and coke (this is before they started banning such machines in schools). After school we were unsupervised (dad was working twice as hard for half as much, and mom was crazy), so often we would down a whole pot of mac and cheese or eat a couple TV dinners as an afternoon snack. They were too stressed out to deal with carting us to sports teams, so that stopped. Family outdoor activities led to parental fights, so those ended up being curtailed as well. Additionally they didn't want to deal with cooking at home, so they ended up ordering pizza or getting us dinner at the drive-thru. All of this resulted in serious weight gain. Perhaps I was picking up on my parents' stress, but I think the overeating was mostly related to the dramatic drop in parental involvement. Without their guidance, I made poor nutritional choices and watched way too much TV.

Please don't flame me and call me a spoiled brat for the following: I'm just telling you my experience. I know the way I lost weight is hardly available to anyone in this country: namely, my dad got a better job and sent me to boarding school. It was filled with stick thin girls all on diets, many with eating disorders, so to fit in, I began starving myself like everyone else around me: water for breakfast, salad with no dressing for lunch, tiny portions at dinner. I no longer had access to a pantry, so I couldn't have my extra afternoon meal any more. I also joined the soccer team at the urging of friends: running around for 13 hours a week is undoubtedly the most important reason why I lost 20 pounds in three months. It was easier for me to eat less and exercise more by being around people who were doing the same. Getting out of a toxic home and school environment also made me happier and I'm sure that also contributed to the weight coming off.

Posted by: Atlanta | September 6, 2008 3:23 PM | Report abuse

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