In a recent study, researchers from Texas Obesity Research Center (TORC) and the University of Houston Department of Health and Human Performance (HHP) examined the precursors to gender-related obesity disparities by examining multiple family-level stress indices. The findings published in the journal Preventive Medicine indicate an association between long-term exposure to three specific types of family stressors and children becoming obese by the time they turn 18 years old.
In the study titled “Gender disparities among the association between cumulative family-level stress & adolescent weight status,” data analyses were based on adolescents born between 1975 and 1991 to women from the 1979 National Longitudinal Study of Youth data set (N = 4762). Three types of family-level stressors were captured from birth to age 15: family disruption and conflict, financial strain, and maternal risky health behaviors, along with a total cumulative risk index. Body mass index was constructed on reference criteria for children outlined by the Centers for Disease Control.
“Experiencing family stress — specifically family disruption and financial stress — repeatedly throughout childhood was associated with overweight or obesity by the time adolescent girls turned 18,” said study author Assistant Professor Daphne Hernandez in a recent news release.
Childhood exposure to risky maternal health behaviors was associated with higher weight status for male adolescents by the time they turned 18. “Overall, the findings suggest that female and male adolescents respond differently to stress. This study extends our knowledge of stress and obesity by focusing on the family environment over time. By knowing the types of stressors that influence female and male adolescent weight gain, we can tailor specific social services to be included in obesity prevention programs,” she said in the news release.
The results from this study are particularly relevant for the prevention of obesity in schools, which focus on physical activity and on dietary intake, which only aid short-term benefits.
“These programs need to take a broader approach to combatting obesity by helping families experiencing these kinds of stressors find access to mental health programs, financial assistance or family counseling,” she said in the news release. “Developing strategies to help with family stressors during childhood may help children maintain healthy weight into adulthood.”