"I felt like I was seeing a lot of children who had experienced stress early in their lives later gain weight pretty rapidly" Dr. Julie Lumeng at the University of Michigan Medical School told Reuters Health.
"There has been quite a bit of research looking at stress in the lives of adults leading to weight gain, but it has not been studied as much in children," said Lumeng, who led the new study.
"We did this particular study because it looked at simply 'events' that had occurred in children's lives and then asked mothers to rate the events in terms of how much of an impact they had," Lumeng said.
The researchers used data from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development.
The mothers of 848 children enrolled in the study completed surveys when their children were 4, 9 and 11 years old. They were asked if any of 71 different life events had occurred during the previous year, and they rated the impact of the event on a scale from -3 (extremely negative) to zero (no effect) to +3 (extremely positive).
Four categories of negative life events were studied: health problems in the family; work, school or financial stability; emotional aspects of family relationships; and family structure, routine and caregiving.
The kids' height and weight were measured at age 15. Teens with a BMI above the 85th percentile for age and gender based on CDC growth charts were defined as being overweight.
Of the 848 children, 260 were considered overweight and 488 were not. Thirty percent of the overweight children had experienced a significant number of negative life events, compared to 22 percent of the non-overweight children.
Experiencing many negative life events was tied to a nearly 50 percent higher risk of being overweight, versus no negative events.
The associations were strongest for negative events related to family physical or mental health, among children of obese mothers and among children who waited longer for food, the researchers report in the journal Pediatrics.
Image: Overweight teen, via Shutterstock