Study finds link between a mother's stress and her child becoming overweight

September 9, 2008

A mother's stress may contribute to her young children being overweight in low income households with sufficient food, according to a new Iowa State University study published in the September issue of Pediatrics, the professional journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. The study analyzed data collected from 841 children in 425 households in the 1999-2002 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

Iowa State faculty members Steve Garasky, a professor of human development and family studies; Brenda Lohman, an assistant professor of human development and family studies; and Susan Stewart, an associate professor of sociology, all collaborated on the study. Lead researcher Craig Gundersen, a member of the agricultural and consumer economics faculty at the University of Illinois; and Joey Eisenmann, a member of the kinesiology and pediatrics faculty at Michigan State University, were also previous ISU faculty members on the research team.

The researchers used mothers' responses to interview questions to determine their mental, physical, financial and family structure levels of stress -- producing a cumulative stress index. The child's weight status was determined by their Body Mass Index (BMI), age and sex. Subjects were also broken into two age groups: three to 10 and 11 to 17 years of age. Household food insecurity status -- whether or not there is enough food to sustain healthy, active lifestyles for all household members -- was also measured from the mothers' interview responses.

In households with no maternal stress, low-income children in food secure households had a 33.0 percent probability of being overweight, while those in food insecure households had a 34.8 percent probability. As maternal stress levels increased, the probability of becoming overweight increased in children from food secure households, but decreased among those in food insecure households. When the maternal stress was found to be at twice the average level of the study sample, children in food-secure households had a 43.7 percent greater probability of being overweight or obese when compared with children in food insecure households.

"We were not able to observe what people are eating in these data. That's definitely part of future work," Garasky said. "But at this point we have to conclude that in stressful environments, children in households with adequate food -- maybe it is 'comfort food,' or maybe it's just larger quantities of more traditional food -- are possibly acting on the desire to eat more, and maybe even eat differently, than those from food insecure households."

For children over the age of 10, the relationship between household stress, food security and weight was found to be statistically insignificant -- meaning it was young children who were most affected.

"If you see the developmental differences in a 6-year-old vs. a 16-year-old, the 6-year-old relies more on the food choices in the households, while the 16-year-old spends more time away from home and has a network of friends or lunch plans at schools where they have more food options," Lohman said. "It could also be that the adolescents are also able to cope with their mother's stress and handle it better through their support mechanisms -- siblings, friends, or teachers -- and the younger kids don't have those same networks, so they might internalize the mother's stressors more."

The researchers have future plans to measure the stress levels of fathers in determining overall household stress. Garasky says they started with mothers because single-parent families make up a high percentage of low-income households, and the vast majority of those single parents are mothers.

"And then it's the premise that mom is traditionally the primary caregiver," he said. "So if you want to link one person to circumstances of a child, it's more natural to link to mom."

"Unfortunately we did not have access to information about fathers' stressors and behaviors in this data set," Lohman said. "Yet in most modern households, fathers may be doing as much or more of the cooking than in the past. So I agree that future work must address stress levels of fathers too."

Garasky says the study's results prove that the home environment may be contributing to the growing epidemic of childhood obesity.

"There's a lot more going on than just asking kids to eat less or exercise more," he said.

"Recognizing the complexity of the issue allows us to recognize that we have more options to help children," he said. "If we can reduce mom's stress -- whether it be mental health or financial issues -- the direct effect on mom is helping her, and that's good. But we can also hope to see indirect effects on other household members and children. For example, their reduced probability of becoming obese is another benefit to helping mom."

Source: Iowa State University

Explore further: Are you lonesome tonight? Why we, like Elvis, turn to food for comfort

Related Stories

Are you lonesome tonight? Why we, like Elvis, turn to food for comfort

August 16, 2017
August 16 is known to many Elvis Presley fans as the anniversary of his untimely death at the age of 42 in 1977. It is also the perfect occasion, for many, to honor him by indulging in his favorite foods, including fried ...

Study shows how food preservatives may disrupt human hormones and promote obesity

August 9, 2017
Can chemicals that are added to breakfast cereals and other everyday products make you obese? Growing evidence from animal experiments suggests the answer may be "yes." But confirming these findings in humans has faced formidable ...

Low to no risk from pesticide-tainted eggs: experts

August 8, 2017
The pesticide fipronil at the heart of Europe's latest food safety scare is found in common household products used to rid the family dog of ticks, kill lawn pests, and in cockroach bait.

Cocaine users' brains unable to extinguish drug associations

September 11, 2017
Cocaine-addicted individuals say they find the drug much less enjoyable after years of use, but they have great difficulty quitting. A new brain imaging study led by researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai ...

Food defense begins with food intelligence

April 4, 2014
Consumers have largely lost an understanding of the traditional sources of food (such as farms, fields, ranches and orchards) and now tend to think of food's origin as the grocery store or the fast-food restaurant. America ...

Adjusting to less food availability can impact kids negatively

November 2, 2015
Adjusting to family circumstances where there is less food available than previously can be a traumatic situation for children and can result in behavioral issues, according to new research from sociologists at Rice University. ...

Recommended for you

Expert: Be concerned about how apps collect, share health data

October 20, 2017
As of 2016 there were more than 165,000 health and wellness apps available though the Apple App Store alone. According to Rice University medical media expert Kirsten Ostherr, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates ...

More teens than ever aren't getting enough sleep

October 19, 2017
If you're a young person who can't seem to get enough sleep, you're not alone: A new study led by San Diego State University Professor of Psychology Jean Twenge finds that adolescents today are sleeping fewer hours per night ...

Across Asia, liver cancer is linked to herbal remedies: study

October 18, 2017
Researchers have uncovered widespread evidence of a link between traditional Chinese herbal remedies and liver cancer across Asia, a study said Wednesday.

Eating better throughout adult years improves physical fitness in old age, suggests study

October 18, 2017
People who have a healthier diet throughout their adult lives are more likely to be stronger and fitter in older age than those who don't, according to a new study led by the University of Southampton.

Global calcium consumption appears low, especially in Asia

October 18, 2017
Daily calcium intake among adults appears to vary quite widely around the world in distinct regional patterns, according to a new systematic review of research data ahead of World Osteoporosis Day on Friday, Oct. 20.

New study: Nearly half of US medical care comes from emergency rooms

October 17, 2017
Nearly half of all US medical care is delivered by emergency departments, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM). And in recent years, the percentage of care delivered ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.