By Elisa Zied
April 10, 2014

If you've ever allowed stress to make you reach for a cupcake, bowl of ice cream or jar of peanut butter—even when you weren't hungry—you're not alone. Several studies suggest that while not everyone eats in response to stress—in fact, some say they skip meals when stressed—it's quite common to turn to food to cope. I know I have! Using food for comfort every once in a while certainly won't derail an otherwise healthful diet. And sometimes, having that donut may just be what you need to settle down! But doing it often—especially if the foods we turn to are high in calories and easy to overdo—can set us up for unhealthy weight gain and its many consequences. And when our children see us use—or abuse—food to temper stress, it's more likely they'll model that behavior and suffer similar consequences.

Although few studies have looked at the link between stress-induced eating and lifestyle factors and health behaviors in children and adolescents, a new study published in BMC Public Health sheds a little light on the topic. Researchers looked at the prevalence of self-reported stress eating behavior and its association with overweight, obesity, abdominal obesity, food consumption, sleep, eating family meals and other variables among almost 7,000 16-year-old boys and girls in Finland, Followed since their mothers were pregnant with them, the adolescents underwent clinical examinations and filled out questionnaires about their eating and other behaviors.

The researchers found that stress-related eating, which was highly prevalent in the teens studied, was linked with a number of negative dietary and health behaviors. Stress-related eating was found to be more common among girls (43%) than boys (15%). Those who reported eating in response to stress were also more likely to be overweight, obese or have excess belly fat than those who didn't report eating in response to stress. Among girls, less sleep, infrequent family meals and frequent consumption of chocolate and sweets were more prevalent among stress eaters. Among boys, those who ate in response to stress also tended to eat more sausage, chocolate, sweets, hamburgers and pizza.

A previous small study published in Appetite found that among 5- to- 9-year-old children, those who released more of the hormone cortisol in response to stress had higher body mass indices (BMI) and consumed significantly more calories without being hungry than those who had lower increases in cortisol.

As parents, many of us want nothing more than to help our kids live happier, more healthful lives. But unfortunately, lots of situations and circumstances can contribute to stress and lead to less-than-healthy eating and other behaviors in ourselves and in our kids. Sometimes it's hard to tell if your kids are stressed, so a good first step is to look for the signs. To help you do just that, check out the American Psychological Association's Identifying Signs of Stress in Your Children and Teens.

Although it's much easier said than done, learning to manage our own stress in positive and productive ways is another great way to help our kids—especially when they're young and impressionable—do the same.

Some ways we can help our kids better manage stress—and eat and live better—include encouraging them to get adequate sleep and having consistent sleep and wake times; providing an array of nutrient-rich meals and snacks that are eaten sitting down at the kitchen counter or table at designated times; eating family meals often and with minimal distraction; encouraging kids to stay active and fit; limiting screen time and time spent sitting; and having go-to, enjoyable activities that help them de-stress (examples include listening to music, doing a puzzle, talking in person or on the phone to a friend, reading a favorite book or playing cards or a fun board game). For more on stress and how to help kids cope, check out my previous Scoop on Food post.

How do you and your kids stress less?

Image of donut via shutterstock.


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