For kids facing stress at home or school, comfort food may lead to unexpected and unwelcome side effects. According to a study from Belgian researchers, that extra eating can lead to increased body fat — and increased obesity risk.
That might seem like a straightforward finding, but it is new information. We’ve known about the connection between stress, eating and weight in adults. Scientists have not looked at children, however.
The study followed some 500 kids over a three-year span. Those who were stressed (that can be measured by looking at their levels of the hormone cortisol) and then ate to feel better ended up gaining weight.
Natalie Michels, a researcher with the public health department at Ghent University in Belgium, and her colleagues did the work. Michels noted the relationship was clearest in one subgroup.
“We see the relation mainly in children with a high sweet tooth consumption,” she said. “So those who take a lot of sweet foods. these children we see the stress increased adiposity.”
Children who had the same cortisol levels but who didn’t respond by eating sweets stayed the same weight, researchers found. That suggests that learning ways to cope with stress also keep off the pounds.
Obesity researcher Sara Kirk of the IWK Children’s Hospital in Halifax, Nova Scotia, said that the study highlights the need to take a broad look at children’s lives.
“We need to understand how the environment influences our decisions about food,” she said. “We need to think about the widespread availability of heavily processed, nutrient-poor but energy-dense foods that are highly palatable. So when we are feeling stressed, we are more likely to reach for those kinds of foods because they are everywhere around us.”
Preventing this kind of stress eating will pay off in the long run, of course. Obesity rates are directly connected to the skyrocketing number of type 2 diabetes cases. So healthy children have a head start on becoming healthy adults.