Girls who experience prolonged periods of food insecurity as well as harsh parenting practices are at greater risk for obesity in early adulthood, according to a new study by Iowa State University researchers.
“When females who are normal weight in their early adolescence experience food insecurity, something is happening in their bodies,” said Dr. Brenda Lohman, a professor in human development and family studies and the study’s lead author. “This sets them on a path toward increased weight gain, so by the time they are 23, they are more likely to be overweight or obese.”
Lohman co-lead the study with lecturer Meghan Gillette and Assistant Professor Dr. Tricia Neppl, all from the department of human development and family studies at Iowa State University. Their findings were published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
Data for the study came from the Iowa Youth and Families Project, a longitudinal study of 451 adolescent youth and their family members beginning in 1989 in the rural Midwest.
Adolescents were 13 years old at initial assessment and were studied in four waves, through age 16. Parents reported their food insecurity, and family interactions were observed through in-home experiences recorded on videotape.
The study shows that food deprivation, when combined with other stressors such as harsh parenting, can impact a teen’s development. The researchers describe harsh parenting as hostile or aversive physical contact; punishment in response to misbehavior; or angry, critical, or disapproving behavior.
“Hardships impact how a youth’s parent feels, which then impacts family processes and family dynamics,” said Nepple, also a co-director at the Family Transitions Project. “Ultimately, it impacts the adolescent.”
While the impact of hardships on a child is undisputed, the reason why differences appear between males and females is still unclear.
“We can’t explain why the males are heavier to start in this study,” Lohman said. “But more importantly, we can’t explain why females are more likely to be overweight and obese when they experience food insecurity, when males aren’t.”
Research has shown that when a person is deprived of nutrients or proper food in combination with experiencing stressors like harsh parenting, that levels of the stress hormone cortisol may increase. In turn, these changes in the endocrine system, essential to hormone function, can lead to greater weight gain.
More research is needed, however, to determine why different pathways are being set for males and females.
“In particular, for the females, there’s something between the stressful reaction of harsh parenting and not having the nutritional food,” Lohman said. “We can only hypothesize right now that there’s something going on metabolically in their bodies, that the stress hormones are increasing — which is then changing their metabolic rate, their behaviors, or both over time.”
Lohman, who serves as the chair of the Family Policy Section for the National Council on Family Relations, stresses the need to expand current views of childhood wellness to incorporate the adolescent years.
“Right now, within the policy field, a lot of the focus is on wellness and education during early childhood and the infant years,” she said. “The policies that are in place don’t focus on the developmental years surrounding puberty, like in early adolescence. So we really need, from a policy perspective, to develop that long-term.”
Some of the initiatives she suggests include the following: providing educational classes in 21st century skills, partnering with doctors and pediatricians to share information with families regarding the impacts of harsh parenting and food insecurity, and launching public relations campaigns such as posting literature at food banks about harsh parenting’s psychological effects.
In addition, progress can be achieved by helping schools provide healthy food for teens both in and outside of the school year, and growing teen’s access and availability to food stamp programming and food banks.
Source: Iowa State University