Early Childhood Stress and Child Age Predict Longitudinal Increases in Obesogenic Eating Among Low-Income Children

Acad Pediatr. 2018 Aug;18(6):685-691. doi: 10.1016/j.acap.2018.01.007. Epub 2018 Jan 31.


Objective: To identify whether psychosocial stress exposure during early childhood predicts subsequent increased eating in the absence of hunger (EAH), emotional overeating, food responsiveness, and enjoyment of food.

Methods: This was an observational longitudinal study. Among 207 low-income children (54.6% non-Hispanic white, 46.9% girls), early childhood stress exposure was measured by parent report and a stress exposure index calculated, with higher scores indicating more stress exposure. Eating behaviors were measured in early (mean, 4.3; standard deviation, 0.5 years) and middle (mean, 7.9; standard deviation, 0.7 years) childhood. Observed EAH was assessed by measuring kilocalories of palatable food the child consumed after a meal. Parents reported on child eating behaviors on the Child Eating Behavior Questionnaire. Child weight and height were measured and body mass index z score (BMIz) calculated. Multivariable linear regression, adjusting for child sex, race/ethnicity, and BMIz, was used to examine the association of stress exposure with rate of change per year in each child eating behavior.

Results: Early childhood stress exposure predicted yearly increases in EAH (β = 0.14; 95% confidence interval, 0.002, 0.27) and Emotional Overeating (β = 0.14; 95% confidence interval, 0.008, 0.27). Stress exposure was not associated with Food Responsiveness (trend for decreased Enjoyment of Food; β = -0.13; 95% confidence interval, 0.002, -0.26). All child obesogenic eating behaviors increased with age (P < .05).

Conclusions: Early stress exposure predicted increases in child eating behaviors known to associate with overweight/obesity. Psychosocial stress may confer overweight/obesity risk through eating behavior pathways. Targeting eating behaviors may be an important prevention strategy for children exposed to stress.

Keywords: eating behavior; longitudinal study; psychosocial stress.

Publication types

  • Observational Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Feeding Behavior / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Pediatric Obesity / psychology*
  • Poverty
  • Risk Factors
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology*