Children, Stress, and Obesity

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Childhood Obesity News has been exploring factors suspected of contributing to the obesity epidemic, including low income, a virus, a medical history that includes childhood cancer, odors, distraction, and too much variety.

A recent study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition started by choosing what seem to be the most harmful circumstances in early life. Heather Johnson reports:

The researchers identified five risk factors: maternal obesity, excess gestational weight gain, smoking during pregnancy, low maternal vitamin D status, and short duration of breastfeeding (less than one month).

Of the total child participants, only 148 (15 percent) had no early-life risk factors for childhood obesity while 330 (33 percent) had one risk factor, 296 (30 percent) had two, 160 (16 percent) had three, and 57 (6 percent) had four or five.

More than half of the kids in the study had four or five of the designated risk factors. Let that sink in. And only 15% had none.

This University of Southampton research revealed something very counterintuitive. A person might think that if a kid can get through early childhood maintaining a normal weight, the danger is over, or at least greatly diminished. But according to this study, the opposite is true. The researchers…

…assessed the children at age 4 and found that children with four or five early-life risk factors had a 19 percent higher fat mass and were 3.99 times more likely to be overweight or obese than children with no risk factors. Then at age 6, the children four or five early-life risk factors had a 47 percent higher fat mass and were 4.65 times more likely to be overweight or obese than children with no risk factors.

In other words, given that those early risk factors were present, elapsed time is no buffer. The further away from babyhood, the greater the odds are that obesity will eventually develop, and that is reason for concern. The good news is, every one of the risk factors can be reduced or removed. The bad news is, everything depends on the mother, who might already be overburdened or worse. It’s all well and good to talk about how intervention needs to start before conception, but the logistics are daunting, and reality will have to work hard to catch up.

So many things can go wrong before birth, and then, there is childhood to get through. A lot of time and talent are expended on trying to discover how to improve children’s lives, and the results depend on enormous amounts of data mining and number crunching. When researchers running a Michigan State University study wanted to track how stressful childhood events can lead to physical manifestations years later, the researchers got their statistics from a national survey that collected data on 3,617 people, four times over 15 years.

For the purposes of that study, childhood was reckoned to end at age 17, and anything after counted as “adult stress.” For children, whose worlds are necessarily smaller, the stressors mainly stemmed from family matters—poverty, divorce, an unknown father, a mentally ill parent, and so on. Stress has long been recognized as an obesity villain through simple observation. For instance, a German word that has been around for ages is “kummerspeck,” literally translated as grief bacon, referring to the fat accrued by emotional overeating. The hope for the future is that the connection between stressful events and obesity (and the additional stress caused by obesity, which leads into a classic vicious circle) can be broken.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Combination of Early-Life Risk Factors Could Quadruple the Risk of Childhood Obesity,”, 02/04/15
Source: “Childhood stress fuels weight gain in women,”, 07/07/15
Image by David Leo Veksler

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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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