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Parental stress linked to child obesity

23rd October 2012

High levels of parental stress could be contributing to childhood obesity rates in the United States, new research shows.

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Around a third of American children are overweight or obese, and obesity in children has now been linked to stressed-out parents.

Children from Black or Hispanic communities, from single-parent households and those from families struggling to make ends meet were most at risk of having parents under stress, and obese or overweight children.

In a report published in the journal Pediatrics, researchers found that parent and caregivers who endure high stress levels are more likely to engage in "haphazard meal planning."

This means a higher likelihood that they and their families will eat frequently in fast-food restaurants.

Researchers followed 2,119 parents and caregivers, who completed questionnaires about themselves and their children, whose ages ranged from 3-17.

The questionnaires were designed to measure the number of stressful factors in the adults' lives, as well as eliciting self-reports of the stress parents and caregivers were under.

While activity levels and the amount of fruit and vegetables consumed by the family seemed unconnected to parental stress levels, overweight and obesity levels were.

According to Eleanor Mackey, a child psychologist at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, the results were borne out by her clinical experience.

Parents who are often stressed found it hard to providing healthy food choices for themselves or their families, and tended to default to easy options, like high-fat fast foods, she said.

Trying to get a nutritious meal on the table after a hard day at work can be overwhelming for some, as well as potentially expensive.

Raising healthy children without adequate resources can be tough, Mackey said.

She suggested opting for canned or frozen vegetables, which are often cheaper than buying fresh alternatives.

Taking time to relax and de-stress was also crucial for parents, and would have benefits for the rest of the family, too, she said.

Meanwhile, Nancy Copperman, who directs public health initiatives at the North Shore-LIJ Health System in New York state, said that stress was clearly a key factor in childhood obesity.

The problem could not simply be blamed on a lack of physical activity and the wrong food.

Single parents are clearly at a higher risk of raising obese or overweight children, simply because of the additional stress involved in raising them alone.

Copperman said it was possible to teach parents how to deal with stress in a healthy way, however, including teaching meal planning that would ultimately lead to healthier foods on the table.

Healthier foods could eventually encourage lower stress levels in parents, who may feel better about themselves as a result.

 

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