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Stressful Experiences Linked to Childhood Obesity

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Stress And Childhood Obesity

We are frequently reminded by the media that, in the western world, obesity in children has increased at an alarming rate since around the 1970s ; worse, this rate of increase is expected to keep on growing for the foreseeable future. Indeed, in the United States, for example, one in six children are now medically classified as overweight or obese.

The reasons that children become obese can be contributed to by both genetic and environmental factors. In the past, research into the causes of childhood obesity have tended to focus on the balance between the child’s intake of calories versus his/her level of physical exercise ; in this article, however, I intend to focus on other environmental causes ; more specifically, the effects of stress.


The link between stress and childhood obesity has only been examined by psychologists since relatively recently. Some of the main findings from studies that have been conducted have been as follows :

  1. research by the psychologists Avisont and Walters (2007) found that children growing up in one-parent families were more likely to be obese than those who grow up in a secure nuclear family (although this by no means implies a simple, direct, cause and effect relationship ; it could, for example, be that one-parent families tend to have less money which in turn causes more stress which, in its own turn, makes it more likely the children in the family will become obese (due to a reliance on cheap, junk food, for instance)
  2. the researcher, Rhee (2008), found that children from dysfunctional families were more likely to be obese than were children from stable homes.
  3. children who suffered neglect were more likely than non-neglected children to be obese (Lissan, 1994).
  4. children who live in homes where at least one other has mental or physical health problems were more likely to be obese than those children who did not ; children who grew up in households where money worries were substantial were more likely to be obese than their more financially privileged contemporaries


The main theories for the link between stressful experiences and obesity in childhood are as follows :

  1. the researchers Booth et al (2000) have suggested that there is a direct physiological link between stress and obesity, namely that stress causes an increase of CORTISOL in the body and this, in turn, adversely interferes with the METABOLIC PROCESS
  2. stress leads to poor eating habits (for example, due to ‘comfort eating’, craving carbohydrates etc) and lower physical activity levels (for example,  due to poor motivation to exercise connected to low mood/reduced will-power)


The implications of these findings for treatment are clear : by addressing factors such as those referred to above, and, thereby, reducing stress levels in the members of problematic families, it may well follow that childhood obesity levels can be reduced.


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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

About David Hosier MSc

Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of Survivor of severe childhood trauma.

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