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Parental Stress Can Cause Obesity in Children: Study

Update Date: Oct 23, 2012 07:02 AM EDT

So here is yet another reason why you shouldn't fight with your spouse. The stress you are taking upon yourself is making your child fat! At least that's what a new study suggests.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. Childhood obesity has both immediate and long-term effects on the health of children and numerous researches have been conducted in the last few years to get to the root cause or influencing factors of the epidemic, in order to eliminate or at least reduce it.  While a number of factors, ranging from over-feeding to over-usage of Internet have been blamed for the same, a new research has linked parental stress to obesity in their children.

The study suggests that a high number of stressors in parents could contribute to their child's weight. How? It is simply because, when parents fight or are stressed, they are more likely not to cook a regular meal at home, opting for fast food which children consume and put on weight.

"Stress in parents may be an important risk factor for child obesity and related behaviors. The severity and number of stressors are important," Elizabeth Prout-Parks, M.D., a physician nutrition specialist at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and lead author of this study, was quoted as saying by Medical News Today.

The parental stressors which are thought to be contributing to children's obesity include households run by a single parent, financial strain on parents and poor physical or mental health of the parents.

In the study, the scientists hypothesized that if interventions are aimed at reducing or teaching coping skills to parents, it could indirectly help public health campaigns deal with childhood obesity.

There have been studies conducted earlier which linked parental stress and childhood obesity. However, the current study includes a more ethnically and socioeconomically diverse population sample for the research.

For the study, researchers relied on self-reported data from 2,119 parents and caregivers who participated in the 2006 Southeastern Pennsylvania Household Health Survey/Community Health Database. Twenty five percent of the children from these households (aged 3 to 17) were apparently obese.

The factors considered by the study were age, race, health, gender of the children, parental stressors, parental perceived stress, sleep quality, BMI, sleep quality, fast-food intake, fruit and vegetable consumption and physical activity, according to the report.

The findings of the study revealed that, of the stressors examined in the study, single-parent households were found to have the most significant impact on child obesity, while financial stress was linked with children not being physically active.

Parental stressors and parent-perceived stress did not seem to have any impact on the reduced fruits and vegetables consumption among their children.

However, parent-perceived stress apparently was found to have an impact on increased fast food consumption by children.

Mostly in households where parents are stressed, in order to avoid the demand of meal arrangement and to save time, parents opt for fast foods because of its easy availability. However, the high amount of fat and sugar content, when consumed on a regular basis, is neither recommended for the children nor for the parents themselves.

Apart from that, the authors believe that parents living under high stress and perceived stress may be less attentive towards their children, who may be making unwise food and activity decisions, which goes unsupervised by the parents.

"Although multiple stressors can elicit a 'stressor pile-up,' causing adverse physical health in children, parent's perception of their general stress level may be more important than the actual stressors," the authors conclude.

Further studies need to be conducted in order to understand and establish other community factors and family behaviors which may be contributing to child obesity and which are not included in the current study.

Also, authors suggest clinical intervention and other programs that could help parents cope with and reduce stress.

The study was published in the November issue of Pediatrics.

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