Stress eating can start in early childhood, may lead to extra weight later

March 9, 2018 by Laurel Thomas, University of Michigan

The link between emotions and eating has been well established but new research from the University of Michigan shows that children as young as 4 who experience stress eat more in the absence of hunger, beginning a cycle that could possibly mean extra pounds down the road.

"We know from previous studies that people who have extremely adverse life experiences and in childhood have a tendency toward overweight and obesity. We know less about the pathway that might contribute to that," said Alison Miller, associate professor of behavior and health education at the U-M School of Public Health.

"These are small increases over time in eating behaviors related to stress during the period of childhood ages 4 to 7 years. What's salient is that children who eat this way very early in childhood may be at higher risk of having these small changes lead to weight gain over time, increasing health risk."

In their study, Miller and colleagues found that greater stress exposure correlated to increases in eating in absence of hunger and in emotional overeating.

Unlike previous cross-sectional research, this study focused on behavior over time. The researchers followed 207 low-income children from 2009 to 2015, recorded stress exposures and observed their eating behaviors.

The researchers define early life stress as chaotic home environments, and exposure to other negative life events, such as witnessing violence or trauma or experiencing material deprivation. Children in poverty are extremely vulnerable to violence exposure, food scarcity and worry over limited resources. These stresses can result in neurobiological, cognitive, social-emotional, behavioral and physical health effects.

"Kids who had higher levels of stress were observed to eat more in the absence of hunger and emotionally overeat more, as reported by their parents," Miller said. "Focusing on a pattern of eating as a stress coping mechanism in young is important."

Miller said the public health response should be to screen for these risks at early life health appointments, address community issues like food scarcity, encourage physical activity, support parents so they can promote healthy habits, and work to improve stress regulation skills during childhood.

"One way to do this is by teaching coping and mindfulness (self-calming) skills to disrupt the link between stressful experiences and maladaptive health ," she said.

Explore further: How childhood experiences contribute to the education-health link

More information: Alison L. Miller et al. Early Childhood Stress and Child Age Predict Longitudinal Increases in Obesogenic Eating Among Low-Income Children, Academic Pediatrics (2018). DOI: 10.1016/j.acap.2018.01.007

Related Stories

How childhood experiences contribute to the education-health link

February 7, 2018
The interconnection between education and health is well established.

Evening hours may pose higher risk for overeating, especially when under stress, study finds

January 16, 2018
Experiments with a small group of overweight men and women have added to evidence that "hunger hormone" levels rise and "satiety (or fullness) hormone" levels decrease in the evening. The findings also suggest that stress ...

Study finds parental stress linked to obesity in children

December 6, 2013
Parental stress is linked to weight gain in children, according to a new study from St. Michael's Hospital. The study found that children whose parents have high levels of stress have a Body Mass Index, or BMI, about 2 per ...

Childhood binge eating: Families, feeding, and feelings

June 28, 2016
Binge eating is the most prevalent type of eating disorder across races, ethnic groups, ages, and genders. Surprisingly, binge eating has even been reported in children as young as 5 years old.

ECO: stress in children impacts hormones, diet, adiposity

May 29, 2014
(HealthDay)—For children, stress is associated with poorer diet, which stimulates adiposity, according to a study presented at the annual European Congress on Obesity, held from May 28 to 31 in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Children's hunger born from mothers' trauma

February 3, 2015
The roots of children's hunger today may stretch back, in part, to the past childhood trauma of their caregivers. Evidence amassed over the past two decades has demonstrated that stress and deprivation during childhood have ...

Recommended for you

New approach improves detection of diseases at birth

September 13, 2018
The combination of a new sequencing technique and machine learning can speed up the diagnosis of diseases in newborns and reduce false-positive results, Yale researchers and their collaborators report.

Study finds that kids are more likely to drink healthier beverages if adults speak the truth—subtly

September 12, 2018
What's the best way to persuade children to drink water instead of unhealthy, sugar-laced beverages? Do you:

Boys and girls share similar math abilities at young ages, study finds

September 10, 2018
There has been much speculation about whether lower female participation rates in STEM fields can be traced to an innate male superiority in math and science. But a new University of Chicago study wanted to test whether boys ...

New advice on kids' concussions calls for better tracking

September 4, 2018
New children's concussion guidelines from the U.S. government recommend against routine X-rays and blood tests for diagnosis and reassure parents that most kids' symptoms clear up within one to three months.

Infants can distinguish between leaders and bullies, study finds

September 3, 2018
A new study finds that 21-month-old infants can distinguish between respect-based power asserted by a leader and fear-based power wielded by a bully.

Mom's use of opioids in pregnancy may stunt kids' learning

August 30, 2018
Learning disabilities and other special education needs are common in children born with opioid-related symptoms from their mother's drug use while pregnant, according to the first big U.S. study to examine potential long-term ...

0 comments

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.