Children who struggle with stress by heading for the cookie jar are more likely to gain body fat, a finding that shows why it’s important to handle stress in more positive ways, European researchers say.
At Tuesday’s European Congress on Obesity held in Sofia, Bulgaria, researchers presented a study on the link between children's stress, hormones, diet and increasing body fat or adiposity.
In a three-year study of about 500 elementary school children, those with high levels of the stress hormone cortisol and who turned to food for comfort gained body fat, Natalie Michels of the public health department at Ghent University in Belgium and her colleagues found.
"We see the relation mainly in children with a high sweet tooth consumption," Michels said in an interview. "So those who take a lot of sweet foods … these children we see the stress increased adiposity."
The cortisol might directly influence body fat or indirectly lead to less healthy dietary intake, the researchers say.
The connection between emotional eating and stress is already recognized in adults, but few studies have looked at children, said Sara Kirk, an obesity researcher at the IWK Children's Hospital in Halifax.
Obesity has many contributing causes, and more knowledge about the role of stress is important because it influences our behaviours, Kirk said.
"We need to understand how the environment influences our decisions about food," Kirk 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're feeling stressed, we're more likely to reach for those kinds of foods because they're everywhere around us."
Those environmental factors influence us "every minute of the day."
"One of the things that we really need to get a grip with in society is this environment undermining our health behaviours. Stress fits into that picture, but we have to recognize that that picture is very complex," Kirk said.
The Belgian researchers found there were children with high cortisol levels who didn't cope by eating sweets and didn't gain additional weight — evidence that better stress management may be important for reducing obesity.