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Study Finds Maternal Stress is a Cause of Overweight Young Children

Jennifer Martin, (202) 720-8188
September 5, 2008

Millions of low-income children in the United States are overweight or at risk of being overweight. While the causes of this issue are numerous, one potential cause is the stress experienced by children-which is especially common for low-income children.

A CSREES-funded study at the University of Illinois (UI) provides further evidence about the connection between stress and childhood obesity. Craig Gundersen from UI and colleagues at Iowa State University and Michigan State University examined the impact of stress on childhood obesity. Types of stress researched include maternal mental stress, maternal physical stress, household financial stress and family structure stress.

After controlling for other factors (e.g., mother's Body Mass Index, income), the authors found that among children age 10 and under who experienced stress (including stress transferred from their mothers), those who were food-secure were more likely to be overweight or at risk of being overweight than children in food-insecure households.

The authors noted that while food-secure and -insecure children may want to eat in response to the stress they are experiencing, the availability of food in their households affects how they are able to act on this impulse. Children living in food-insecure homes may lack the resources to consume "comfort foods" (or food that can be of poor nutritional quality) when they are stressed. As the majority of low-income children in the United States are food-secure, the authors concluded that efforts to alleviate stress, including financial and maternal stress, can lead to reductions in children being overweight.  The results are of particular interest to USDA, which has the responsibility for administering nutrition assistance programs that serve low-income children and their families.

The study, "Food Security, Maternal Stressors, and Overweight Among Low-Income US Children: Results from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (1999-2002)," was published in the September 2008 issue of Pediatrics.

Through federal funding and leadership for research, education and extension programs, CSREES focuses on investing in science and solving critical issues impacting people's daily lives and the nation's future. For more information, visit