Parental stress linked to obesity in children

Parents who don't manage their stress levels appropriately might be setting up their kids for obesity, according to a new study from St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto.

Researchers found that children of parents with high levels of stress have a body mass index (BMI) that's about 2 percent higher than in kids with parents who have low stress levels. The children of stressed-out parents also gained weight at a 7 percent higher rate during the study period than other children.

Surveying parental stress

Dr. Ketan Shankardass, a social epidemiologist with the hospital's Centre for Research on Inner Health, says the study is the first to link parental stress to weight gain in young children.

The research involved surveying parents about their ability to control important things in their lives, and whether or not they were able to manage growing responsibilities or difficulties. Accordingly, researchers measured the childrens' BMI each year.

Since children's bodies are still developing, continued weight gain can lead to serious health issues at a young age, Shankardass said.

Coping with food?

It appears that parents might change their behavior when they're stressed, like exercising less or failing to provide healthy meals for kids. Children may also pick up on parental stress, Shankardass said, which can result in them eating more or being less active. Since stress can also lead to biological changes that cause weight gain, it makes sense that even children from active families might gain weight if their parents are stressed.

While parental changes in behavior are necessary to help children avoid weight gain, Shankardass said that interventions that address the entire family unit would be helpful. Access to healthy food, social resources for coping with stress or financial assistance during challenging times could all be preventative strategies, he noted.

"Childhood is a time when we develop inter-connected habits related to how we deal with stress, how we eat and how active we are," Shankardass said. "It's a time when we might be doing irreversible damage or damage that is very hard to change later."

The study is published in the journal Pediatric Obesity.

Source: St. Michael's Hospital

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