NEW YORK - Children who have gone through trying times are more likely to be overweight by age 15, a new study suggests.
Stress in childhood has been associated with a greater risk of becoming overweight, although the link isn't always consistent from study to study, researchers said.
"I felt like I was seeing a lot of children who had experienced stress early in their lives later gain weight pretty rapidly" Dr. Julie Lumeng at the University of Michigan Medical School told Reuters Health.
"There has been quite a bit of research looking at stress in the lives of adults leading to weight gain, but it has not been studied as much in children," said Lumeng, who led the new study.
"We did this particular study because it looked at simply 'events' that had occurred in children's lives and then asked mothers to rate the events in terms of how much of an impact they had," Lumeng said.
The researchers used data from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development.
The mothers of 848 children enrolled in the study completed surveys when their children were 4, 9 and 11 years old. They were asked if any of 71 different life events had occurred during the previous year, and they rated the impact of the event on a scale from -3 (extremely negative) to zero (no effect) to +3 (extremely positive).
Four categories of negative life events were studied: health problems in the family; work, school or financial stability; emotional aspects of family relationships; and family structure, routine and caregiving.
The kids' height and weight were measured at age 15. Teens with a BMI above the 85th percentile for age and gender based on CDC growth charts were defined as being overweight.
Of the 848 children, 260 were considered overweight and 488 were not. Thirty per cent of the overweight children had experienced a significant number of negative life events, compared to 22 per cent of the non-overweight children.
Experiencing many negative life events was tied to a nearly 50 per cent higher risk of being overweight, versus no negative events.
The associations were strongest for negative events related to family physical or mental health, among children of obese mothers and among children who waited longer for food, the researchers report in the journal Pediatrics.
"The number of negative events that had happened in a child's life predicted the likelihood that the child would be overweight in adolescence," Lumeng wrote in an email. "We thought this was important as well because while lots of interventions focus on healthy eating and promoting more exercise, if stress is related to children's risk of becoming overweight, this could be a new focus for interventions," she said.
The results were about the same for boys as for girls. "There is prior evidence in adults that women may be more likely to 'stress eat' than men, so we thought that girls may be more sensitive to the effects than boys. This was not the case, however," Lumeng said.
It's also important to note the risk was greater for kids whose mothers were obese. Obese mothers may have more obesity-promoting environments, which could lead to their children being overweight as well, the researchers point out. It could also contribute to some of the family health problems reported as negative life events.
"I think without a doubt that if you work in the field of weight management, you often hear about challenging situations that folks are coming from. Seeing this study just further documents what we're already experiencing in the clinics," Dr. Stephen Pont told Reuters Health. Pont is Chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Provisional Section of Obesity.
"This study starts to show that there may be significant stressors that these children have experienced that has to some degree resulted in the weight problem they have right now. If we understand that, then maybe we can be more empathetic and not guilt or blame or look down on them," said Pont, who was not involved in the new research.
Family support is crucial for managing both stress and weight issues. Parents can help children get through stressful events by talking to them and focusing on coping skills, Pont said.
"Conversations are very important," he said. "Sometimes we can't know how a child is experiencing something unless we talk to them about it. With anything regarding stress or behavioural health, we recommend talking to your kids."
Parents can ask children how they feel about any stressful life events. Pont cautioned that some kids may not admit there's a problem and that younger children may not be able to verbalize how they feel. In those cases, parents should look for other clues like problems with friends or school, or unexplained headaches or stomach aches.