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Emotional Aspect of Obesity

How Stress And Comfort Eating Are Triggers For Overeating

Stress eating and comfort eating. They're well-known triggers for overeating in adults, but could they be a cause of obesity in children as well?

C.T. O'Donnell, president and CEO of KidsPeace (the National Center for Kids Overcoming Crisis), thinks so, and has put forth that thesis in an essay in a recent issue of Philanthropy News Digest.

In it, he acknowledges that physical factors, such as poor eating habits and lack of exercise, play a significant role in childhood obesity. However, he also points out that despite a flood of good intentions, public awareness messages, diets and advice, our kids are getting bigger and bigger.

Stressed Is Desserts Spelled Backwards

O'Donnell, who has 35 years of experience heading up childcare and advocacy organizations as well as being the father of three, wonders if a rising tide of stressors on children could be part of the reason there has been such an explosion in childhood obesity. It makes sense when you think of it from an adult perspective, which O'Donnell does when he notes the following:

While no one thinks twice when adults have a bad day at the office or go through a particularly painful breakup and have an extra mug of beer in the local tavern or an extra pint of chocolate macadamia madness from their freezer, the role of emotions and stressors in childhood obesity is almost absent from the popular national debate. But the truth is: It's not only what our kids are eating ... sometimes, it's what's eating our kids.

"In our work with children we noticed that a high proportion of the kids coming into residential care had eating concerns, and those kids were typically under a great deal of stress," O'Donnell says. "It wasn't such a stretch to see the problem [of obesity] through the continuum of community-based care programs where we serve kids in their homes and in foster care homes."

O'Donnell goes on to cite a survey conducted by the KidsPeace Lee Salk Center for Research of 1,023 American children between the ages of 10 and 13, which found the following:

  • 54 percent fear they may contract AIDS.
  • Four in 10 children as young as 10 believe they may fall into the traps of early pregnancy, unwed parenthood, drugs or alcohol.
  • 45 percent fear they will be physically or sexually abused.
  • 51 percent are worried about their own deaths.
  • 47 percent say they are afraid they might be unhappy in life.

O'Donnell worries that these types of fears in such a young population could be leading to self-destructive behaviors such as overeating.

Devil's Advocate

While O'Donnell puts forth an intriguing premise, it's one that Dr. Sylvia Rimm disagrees with. Dr. Rimm is a child psychologist and the author of Rescuing the Emotional Lives of Overweight Children (Rodale Books, 2004), which was based upon her groundbreaking study of 5,400 middle school students. It was the first research to shed some light on the emotional effects of being overweight.

Dr. Rimm says her research indicates that children rarely eat because of outside stressors in the same way that adults do, but that being overweight tends to be a self-defeating cycle. In other words, children are overweight, get teased and then eat even more. Her results also show that the busier children tend to be with extracurricular activities such as sports and the arts, the less they tend to eat and thus weigh, a finding that directly contradicts the idea that the stress of being highly scheduled leads to emotional stress and, thus, overeating.

"There is always an emotional component to being overweight, but children do not eat when they're stressed in the same way adults do," Dr. Rimm says. "Our findings [are] clear: The less kids do, the more they eat."

Meeting of the Minds

While O'Donnell's observations are based upon anecdotal experience and Dr. Rimm's are based upon surveys taken by the children themselves, the truth is probably somewhat more nuanced. The children that need the types of services O'Donnell's organization provides may tend to be children who are more emotionally fragile and worry more about the world around them. They may have less stable family lives and less involved parents. The children Dr. Rimm surveyed may not have recognized that they sometimes eat in response to outside stressors.

O'Donnell and Dr. Rimm do agree on two issues: One is that a lack of physical activity and poor eating habits are the No. 1 cause of childhood obesity. The second is that parents need to be involved with their children to prevent both weight issues and emotional stressors.

Parents are needed to ensure their children have the opportunity to get involved in outside interests, whether it's sports or something in the arts. Even children who aren't interested in team sports but are active in other ways, such as in the arts, showed lower levels of overweight in studies than children who weren't involved in activities at all.

"Children who are busy don't have time to overeat," Dr. Rimm says. And if the parents join in physical activity as well, all the better. They can build a stronger bond with their children so they will feel safer and more secure from outside threats.

O'Donnell also stresses parental involvement, noting that the family dinner is an ideal time to monitor not only what goes in a child's mouth, but what comes out of it as well. Of course, having a sit-down dinner even several nights a week isn't always practical for busy families, but even a casual meal of sandwiches and fruit on a blanket at the soccer field can substitute in a pinch. It's taking the time to be with your kids and get them out from in front of the television and their minds off their own worries that are important.

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