Researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto discovered that children whose parents have high levels of stress have a Body Mass Index (BMI) about 2 percent higher than children whose parents have low levels of stress.
Children with higher parental stress also gained weight at a 7 percent higher rate than other children, researchers report in the study, which was published in the journal Pediatric Obesity.
While the figures may sound low, they are significant because they are happening in children, whose bodies are still developing, along with their eating and exercise habits, said the study’s lead author, Ketan Shankardass, Ph.D.
If the weight gain continues over a lifetime, it could lead to serious obesity and health issues, he noted.
“Childhood is a time when we develop interconnected habits related to how we deal with stress, how we eat and how active we are,” Shankardass said. “It’s a time when we might be doing irreversible damage or damage that is very hard to change later.”
Shankardass, a social epidemiologist with the hospital’s Centre for Research on Inner City Health, studied data collected during the Children’s Health Study, one of the largest and most comprehensive investigations into the long-term effects of air pollution on the respiratory health of children.
The children’s BMI was calculated each year. Parents were given a questionnaire to measure their perceived psychological stress. They were asked how often in the last month they were able or unable to control important things in their life and whether things were going their way or their difficulties were piling up so high they could not overcome them, the researcher noted.
Shankardass, who is also an assistant professor in psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University, said it was not clear why the link between stress and obesity exists.
He postulated that parents may change their behavior when they are stressed, which leads to more unhealthy food available in the house and less exercise.
The parents’ stress then causes stress for children, who cope by eating more or exercising less, he said. In some children, the stress could lead to biological changes that cause weight gain, he said.
He suggests that rather than focusing on getting parents to change their behavior, interventions should focus on how to support families in challenging conditions. Support could come in the form of making sure families have a reliable supply of healthy food, an opportunity to live in a nice neighborhood, and other financial or service resources to help cope with stress.
Shankardass noted that more than half the students followed in the California study were Hispanic, and that the effects of stress on their BMI was greater than children of other ethnic backgrounds.
He said this was consistent with other research that has suggested that Hispanic children may be more likely to experience hypherphasia — excessive hunger or increased appetite — and a sedentary lifestyle.
He suggested that future research should look into other reasons that Hispanic children are more susceptible to parental stress, including differences in how Hispanic parents respond to stress or how Hispanic children perceive stressors or cope with stress.
Source: St. Michael’s Hospital