Stress Eating Is Hereditary

They Can't Be Comfortable

This really should come as no surprise to anyone, but now it’s official:

Stressed out teens are more likely to be overweight or obese, especially if they live with a mom who also feels frazzled…

Fathers figure in this psychological dynamic, too, in a bit more complicated way. The point is, this has been known for millennia. In Old Testament language, the sins of the fathers (and mothers) are visited on the children, for generations. Other cultural traditions phrase it differently or recognize it as plain old heredity and/or environment. Nervous parents tend to raise nervous kids. Abusive parents tend to raise abusive kids.

Humans deal with stress in a lot of different ways, one of which is aberrant eating. When parents pass on stress to their kid, he or she is very likely to self-medicate with food — especially if the parents model this way of handling stress. Parents who were fat kids themselves, tend to raise fellow citizens in the lonely yet overpopulated world of childhood obesity.

So there’s a certain amount of common sense in these findings, as related by Jenny Leonard. It was a sizeable study, originating from Iowa State University and involving 1,011 adolescents in Chicago, Boston, and San Antonio. The research spanned six years and included faculty from human development, family studies, sociology, agricultural and consumer economics, kinesiology, and pediatrics.

Forty-seven percent of the sample turned out to be overweight or obese, and that number increased when a high-stress level was factored in. Here’s the verbal summary, as formulated by assistant professor and lead author for this project, Brenda Lohman:

We found that an adolescent or youth who’s more stressed — caused by such things as having poor grades, mental health problems, more aggressive behavior, or doing more drugs and alcohol — is also more likely to be overweight or obese.

Journalist Leonard explains,

The five factors used to determine the individual stressor index for the adolescents were academic problems, consumption of drugs and alcohol, depression or poor mental health levels, acting out or aggressive behaviors, and lack of future orientation.

But here is a question. Is stress caused by getting a bad report card, as Lohman seems to imply? Here is another question. Are poor grades, along with poor eating habits, among the symptoms of stress? Does aggressive behavior cause stress? Or does stress cause aggressive behavior, along with overeating, as well as other undesirable stress-relieving behaviors? The consumption of drugs and alcohol — and hedonic foods — are those the causes of stress? The results of stress? Or both?

Anyway, Brenda Lohman recommends new research, with an emphasis on “the need for health care professionals to take a more holistic approach in the treatment of obese teens.”

Dr. Pretlow’s book, Overweight: What Kids Say, includes an entire chapter on stress eating, including many hints on how to outwit the urge. Mainstream medicine tends to believe stress eating is due to hormones, e.g. cortisol, released as response to stress, which increase appetite and overeating. Dr. Pretlow is not convinced that the hormonal theory explains stress eating, feeling that a better explanation lies in displacement activity, which is a universal animal response to displace stress-induced conflict energy, and also in comfort eating to ease the pain of stress. Human displacement activity includes behaviors such as nail biting and… yep, overeating.

In a poll on the site, kids attest to the similarity between nail biting and overeating, and most say they bite their nails. A 15 year-old commented about the poll, “Overeating is like nail biting because it’s a habit that you do when you’re restless, bored, etc.”

Additionally, it has been shown that teens are feeling stress now more than ever before, as confirmed by the 2009 report on stress in America, issued by the American Psychological Association. And, as always, the best evidence comes from kids themselves. A Weigh2Rock poll shows that 82% of the young people who responded, have experienced increased stress in the past three years. And stress leads to more stress, as articulated by an overweight 15-year-old girl:

When I’m stressed, my face breaks out and I overeat, and then I feel lousy and hate myself, and it just starts this really vicious cycle that’s hard to break…

Teens really do need all the help they can get, once caught in a vicious cycle of stress, eating, stress caused by eating, eating caused by stress, ad infinitum. Or any other kind of vicious cycle.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Stressed kids at risk for obesity,”, 06/08/10
Source: “APA Survey Raises Concern about Parent Perceptions on Children’s Stress,” APA, 11/03/09
Source: “What’s Really Causing the Childhood Obesity Epidemic? What Kids Say,” Weigh2Rock
Source: “Poll #79,” BlubberBuster
Image by Tobyotter, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Profiles: Kids Struggling with Weight

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The Book

OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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