Children enrolled in Head Start programs had their cortisol checked throughout the day to measure stress.

Stress Eating Starts Young

Study finds the link between stress and obesity starts in early childhood

issue 1 | winter 2012

Researchers at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital believe that underlying chemical and biobehavioral patterns established in very early childhood may make maintaining a healthy weight more difficult for some children. Understanding these patterns and pathways may help address childhood obesity in a more holistic fashion.

"We are interested in how early childhood stress plays a role in obesity," says Julie Lumeng, M.D., F.A.A.P. "When adults suffer chronic stress, they eat more and gain weight over a period of years. Cortisol plays a role by both increasing the appetite and shifting preferences to 'comfort' foods. Foods high in added sugar and fat release opioids in the brain, which is soothing and simply makes you feel better."

It's also well established that obesity is more prevalent in low-income children. And while there are multiple contributing factors to this phenomenon, Lumeng hypothesizes that stress is a significant factor, especially in low-income children, who tend to experience more chronic stress. Some of the questions Lumeng is exploring include:

  • Do these biochemical pathways occur in children younger than 4 or 5?
  • Do little ones 'stress eat'?
  • Does establishing that pattern contribute to childhood obesity, particularly in low-income children?

"Three-year-olds may not necessarily have a tantrum for a cookie to be manipulative," explains Lumeng. "The cookie may actually make them feel better and reduce their stress. So we are investigating whether low-income children have differences in their cortisol because of the chronic stress, and if these differences are linked to stress eating, especially foods high in added sugar and fat."

Lumeng and Alison Miller, Ph.D., received NIH grants to examine 380 3- to 5-year-old Head Start students by measuring the cortisol in their saliva throughout the day. Questionnaires were also completed by the mothers, allowing analysis of the relationships between stress, cortisol patterns, stress eating and a higher risk of overweight. "We are examining these relationships now in children beginning at age 21 months," says Lumeng. "It is important to understand how young these relationships may develop."

Lumeng believes that her conclusions will support the position that obesity intervention programs should include strategies for improving children's emotional and behavioral self-regulation. "We know that developing self-regulation skills in early childhood — improving a child's ability to delay gratification, to inhibit an impulse, to calm themselves — can track throughout their lives," she says. "Investing in quality early childhood programs that include a focus on social-emotional development may also help reduce obesity rates in the future."

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