Stressed-Out Parents Lead to Overweight Kids

New nutrition studies support what dietitians have known for years.

A mother and daughter eat a fast-food dinner. One new study found that stressed-out parents tend to eat more fast food and have overweight children. (Photo: Fuse/Getty Images)

Steve Holt writes about food for 'Edible Boston,' 'Boston Magazine,' 'The Boston Globe,' and other publications.

When his pediatrician told him he needed to lose weight, 12-year-old Chris Wilson's parents, Keith and Sharon, took him to see dietitian Stacey Antine in Wyckoff, NJ. Chris had been enrolled weight-loss programs through Antine’s HealthBarn USA, but his parents thought his most recent diagnosis was more urgent and merited a private consultation.

What Antine found was a family whose lifestyle habits were contributing to Chris’ weight problems. Both Keith and Sharon work in high-pressure jobs, giving them little time to cook at home—let alone sit down as a family. Chris regularly skips breakfast (saying he’s not hungry) and then eats things like French fries and chicken nuggets the rest of the day. To make matters worse, Chris’ two siblings at home are also picky eaters. And there they were in Antine’s office: an overweight 12-year-old and his parents, desperate for the dietitian to tell them what they should do.

When Antine thinks about clients like the Wilsons (whose names were changed for this article), she is not surprised to hear the results of two recent nutrition studies: that stress leads to increased fast-food consumption and heavier kids, and that skipping breakfast leads people to make poor food choices the rest of the day.

Researchers at the Children's Hospital in Philadelphia have determined that parents with more stressors in their lives are more likely to have obese children, and parents who feel more stressed feed their children more fast food than those who feel more relaxed. Common stressors that are linked with childhood obesity include poor physical and mental health, financial strain, and leading a single-parent household, the report stated.

And researchers in London have concluded that skipping breakfast may prompt the brain to make poor food choices the rest of the day. The new study, conducted by London’s MRC Clinical Science Centre, analyzed the magnetic resonance images (MRIs) of 21 volunteers who fasted before coming in for their tests. On one those visits, the volunteers were first given a 750-calorie breakfast before the researchers ran the MRI scans.

On another visit to the research center, the test subjects weren’t fed any breakfast, but were always served lunch after each scanning session.

“Through both the participants’ MRI results and observations of how much they ate at lunch, we found ample evidence that fasting made people hungrier, and increased the appeal of high-calorie foods and the amount people ate,” Dr. Tony Goldstone, who led the study, told Voice of America.

What was Antine’s nutritional advice for the Wilson family? For Chris to begin eating a healthy smoothie on his way out the door in the morning, for Sharon to provide meal ideas to her husband (who is the household’s main cook) at the beginning of the week, and for the family to sit down and eat together whenever possible. So far, the advice appears to be working.

“It’s been a month since our first meeting and the new routines seems to be sticking for kids and parents,” she says. “And, [Chris] is eating breakfast daily and has stopped the weight gain.”

Are you more likely to consume fast food (and feed it to your children) when you are stressed? Are you a breakfast-skipper?

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