Stress in Parents Linked to Obesity in Kids

By Denise Mann
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

Oct. 22, 2012 -- One in three kids in America is overweight or obese, and having stressed-out parents may be contributing to these rates, a new study suggests.

The more stress the parents report, the more likely their children are to be overweight or obese, the research shows.

Why? For starters, stressed-out parents and caregivers are more likely to frequent fast food restaurants for themselves and their families, and are more likely to engage in "haphazard meal planning."

In the new study, 2,119 parents and caregivers answered questions about themselves and their children who were aged 3 to 17. Researchers measured the number of stressors and parents' self-reports of the stress in their lives.

Parents' stress did not seem to affect the amount of fruits and vegetables the children ate or their physical activity levels.

Stressed-Out Parents and Obese Children: What's the Link?

Some families in the study were more vulnerable to the effect of stress on their weight. These "high-risk" groups include:

  • Black/Hispanic children
  • Children from single-parent households
  • Kids from families that are struggling financially

Eleanor Mackey, PhD, is a child psychologist at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. "We do see this in clinical practice," she says. "Parents are often stressed and have a hard time providing healthy options."

The easy defaults are unhealthy -- namely high-fat fast foods.

"You have a hard day at work, and trying to get a nutritious meal on the table can be overwhelming and expensive," she says. "It can be difficult to raise healthy kids without adequate resources."

Fresh produce is pricey, but low-salt frozen and canned vegetables are less expensive alternatives.

Parents can also take time to de-stress, which will be beneficial for everyone, Mackey says.

It's not just lack of physical activity and the wrong food that lead to obesity, says Nancy Copperman, RD. She is the director of public health initiatives at the North Shore-LIJ Health System in Great Neck, N.Y. "We often don't think of other lifestyle or social factors when we talk about obesity with families."

The new study suggests we should consider other factors, namely stress.

"It highlights that some families may be at risk for obesity due to stress," she says. "We need to look at single parents and realize that they are at higher risk, and teach them how to deal with stress in a healthy way. We can also teach meal planning that will allow these families to put healthier foods on the table."

If everyone is eating healthier, parents may feel better about themselves and lower their stress levels in the process.

The findings appear in Pediatrics.


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SOURCES: Parks, E.P. Pediatrics, October 2012. Nancy Copperman, RD, director, public health initiatives, North Shore-LIJ Health System, Great Neck, N.Y. Eleanor Mackey, PhD, child psychologist, Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

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