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Stress increases risk of childhood obesity

Childhood obesity is two to three times more prevalent in families with high levels of stress compared with families with a more relaxed environment. Psychological stress can be an important factor to study as obesity is on the increase.

These outcomes were the result of a research project by Felix-Sebastian Koch, PhD student at the Department for Paediatrics, Linköping University. In his theses ‘Stress and Obesity in Childhood’ he also links high levels of parental stress with lower levels of self-esteem in children. Children from families with high levels of stress showed higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

The reasons for stress in families with small children can be many, such as worrying about the children, lack of a social network or traumatic events. In families where several of these reasons co-existed the levels of stress were raised which resulted in a two- to threefold increase in childhood obesity.

The four studies published in the thesis are based on data from 17,000 children born between 1 October 1997 and 31 October 1999 in south-eastern Sweden, part of the All babies in southeast Sweden (ABIS) project. The parents responded to questionnaires at birth followed by four more occasions until their child reached eight years of age. The Body Mass Index (BMI) of the children was calculated at the ages of two, five and eight. The levels of the saliva hormone cortisol were also measured in 126 children at the age of eight.

Over 3,800 eight year olds were part of the study concerning stress and self-esteem. They were tested using the tool ‘I think I am’, which measures physical traits, abilities and talents, psychological wellbeing, and relationships within the family and with others. In all aspects stress within the family had a negative impact on self-esteem.

Moreover the children’s body image was assessed. They were shown nine different images, ranging from very thin to clinically obese, and were then asked to point to the one, in their opinion, most like themselves. They were also asked how they would like to look. 70 per cent were happy with their own body, the rest wanted to be thinner or larger. The most worrying result was that a small part of the 10 per cent who were already very thin wanted to be even thinner.

“If you are not happy with yourself at the age of eight then something is wrong. Perhaps more and more children feel they fail to reach the ideals that are projected in society” says Felix-Sebastian Koch.

There could be further links between psychological stress and obesity. Stress and low self-esteem could lead to comfort eating, but also to hormonal imbalances which could lead to lowered sensitivity to insulin resulting in increased storage of energy as fat deposits.


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Last updated: 2009-06-03