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Family stress may make kids fat: study

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Living in a stressful household may raise a child’s risk of becoming obese, according to findings from a study of Swedish families.

Compared with 5- to 6-year-old children living in families with low stress levels, age-matched children from “high-stress” families had about twice the risk for obesity, the study team found.

“Families can probably deal with some stress or stressors, but not with several at the same time,” Felix-Sebastian Koch, a doctoral student from Linkping University, told Reuters Health.

When stress becomes too much for the family to handle, Koch said, “children are at higher risk to develop childhood obesity.”

Koch and colleagues evaluated stress levels in 7443 Swedish families from the time their children were born through the children’s current age of 5 to 6 years. Fifty-two percent of the children were boys.

At the later assessment, 4.2 percent of the children were obese, according to a report of the study in The Journal of Pediatrics.

Over the study period, parents reported various “stressors” from serious life events such as family accident or illness, death, divorce, unemployment, or exposure to violence. They also reported stressors from parenting difficulties or spouse relationship issues; a lack of social support; and worries about children’s health and development.

Koch’s group defined high stress families as those reporting stress in at least two of these four areas.

As noted, results showed that children from these high stress families, compared with children from low-stress families (i.e., those reporting stressors in just one area or no stress) were at significantly greater risk for becoming obese.

“Stress probably interacts with other factors to worsen the problem of childhood obesity,” Koch said. But it is definitely not the only factor associated with childhood obesity, he added.

However, since these findings suggest family stress may contribute to childhood obesity, it is important for families experiencing high stress to seek support, Koch and colleagues conclude.

SOURCE: The Journal of Pediatrics, December 2008