A high number of stressors in parents can cause a greater likelihood of children with obesity. Additionally, when parents feel stressed, their children consume fast food more frequently, in contrast to children whose parents are less stressed.

Elizabeth Prout-Parks, M.D., a physician nutrition specialist at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and lead author of this study, published in the November issue of Pediatrics, says: “Stress in parents may be an important risk factor for child obesity and related behaviors. The severity and number of stressors are important.”

Parent stressors that could be associated with childhood obesity include: leading a single-parent household, financial strain, and poor physical and mental health.

In contrast to earlier research, which suggested a connection between parental stress and childhood obesity, the current study looked at a more ethnically and socioeconomically varied population.

The researchers hypothesized that interventions geared towards reducing parental stress and teaching coping skills could help public health campaigns in dealing with childhood obesity.

The research team examined self-reported data from 2,119 parents and caregivers who took part in the 2006 Southeastern Pennsylvania Household Health Survery/Community Health Database. These households had children aged 3 to 17, twenty-five percent of whom were obese.

The study variables were as follows:

  • parental stressors
  • parent-perceived stress
  • age
  • race
  • health quality
  • gender of children
  • adult levels of education
  • BMI
  • gender
  • sleep quality
  • child obesity
  • fast-food intake
  • fruit and vegetable consumption
  • physical activity

Of the examined stressors, single-parent households had the most significant relationship with child obesity, while financial stress showed the most noteworthy relationship for a child not being physically active.

Surprisingly, parental stressors and parent-perceived stress were not connected with decreased fruit and vegetable intake among their children.

This study was the first to find a connection between parent-perceived stress and increased fast food consumption by children. Fast food contains large amounts of fat and sugar, important risk factors for child obesity. The investigators pointed out that parents enduring stress may buy more fast food for the family, in order to save time, or decrease the demands of meal arrangement.

The authors also believe authentic stress and perceived stress could lead to less supervision of children, who may make unwise food and activity decisions.

The authors conclude:

“Although multiple stressors can elicit a ‘stressor pile-up,’ causing adverse physical health in children, parent’s perception of their general stress level may be more important than the actual stressors.”

More studies will be needed on child obesity to further investigate other community factors and family behaviors which are not present in the current study. Additionally, the authors suggest clinical care and other programs that could potentially decrease levels of childhood obesity, such as teaching coping strategies to reduce parental stress.

Written by Kelly Fitzgerald