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Overreaction to Stress puts Children at Higher Risk of being Obese Later

Update Date: Feb 18, 2013 03:22 AM EST

Children who become overtly anxious and can't cope with stress are at a high risk of developing obesity, says a new study.

Researchers argue that identifying kids who are in stressful environments and teaching them stress management techniques could help keep them physically healthy.

The study was conducted by researchers at Penn State and Johns Hopkins University who assessed the levels of stress in children and how it affected their risk of putting on more weight.

To measure stress, researchers asked children to deliver speeches or perform a mathematical task. Then, their saliva samples were analyzed for levels of the stress hormone called cortisol.

Children were then given time to eat or play and were given access to free, unlimited amount of snacks or toys. On an average, children consumed 250 kilocalorie of snacks while some consumed as low as 20 kilocalories or as high as 700 kilocalories during the same period.

"We found that older kids, ages 8 to 11, who exhibited greater cortisol release over the course of the procedure had significantly higher body-mass indices [BMI] and consumed significantly more calories in the absence of hunger than kids whose cortisol levels rose only slightly in response to the stressor. We also found that kids whose cortisol levels stayed high-in other words, they had low recovery-had the highest BMIs and consumed the greatest number of calories in the absence of hunger," said Lori Francis, associate professor of biobehavioral health.

A recent study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found that people with emotional problems during early childhood, especially women, may be at a higher risk of developing heart diseases during middle-age.

"Our results suggest that some children who are at risk of becoming obese can be identified by their biological response to a stressor. Ultimately, the goal is to help children manage stress in ways that promote health and reduce the risks associated with an over- or under-reactive stress response," said Francis, one of the study authors, in a news release.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that 17 percent of all children in the U.S. or 12.5 million children and teens in the country are affected by obesity.

"It is possible that such factors as living in poverty, in violent environments, or in homes where food is not always available may increase eating in the absence of hunger and, therefore, increase children's risk of becoming obese," she said.

The study is published in the journal Appetite. 

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