There is 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, suggests A new study from the University of Houston Department of Health and Human Performance and Texas Obesity Research Center.

Adolescent obesity is a public health concern of national scale and when unchecked, sets young people up for a variety of health issues as they age.

With data from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth, Assistant Professor Daphne Hernandez looked at three family stress points, financial stress, family disruption, and poor maternal health, and applied those to data of more than 4,700 adolescents born between 1975 and 1990.

“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,” Hernandez said.

Curiously, only one chronic family stress point, poor maternal health, was related to boys becoming overweight or obese 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,” Hernandez noted.

The findings are especially important to school-based obesity prevention programs which currently focus on dietary intake and physical activity, which yield only short-term benefits, according to Hernandez:

“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. “Developing strategies to help with family stressors during childhood may help children maintain healthy weight into adulthood."


Daphne C. Hernandez, Emily Pressler. Gender disparities among the association between cumulative family-level stress & adolescent weight status. Preventive Medicine, 2015; 73: 60 DOI: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2015.01.013

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