TUESDAY, Sept. 2, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- Younger children from low-income families who pick up the stress of their anxious mothers often respond by developing poor eating habits that raise their risk of becoming overweight, a new study says.
"Most low-income children in the U.S. are food secure, meaning they have access to a sufficient amount of food," said study lead author Craig Gundersen, an associate professor of agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois. "And we found that children who experience maternal stress and can access food if they're feeling anxious tend to go for the so-called 'comfort foods,' which may not be the most healthy."
About 17 percent of American children between the ages of 2 and 19 are obese, and another 16.5 percent are overweight, the study authors noted.
The new findings, published in the September issue of the journal Pediatrics, were based on a survey of 841 children -- between the ages of 3 and 17-- and their mothers. Statistics collected between 1999 and 2002 by the National Health Nutrition Examination Survey were also reviewed.
All the mothers had incomes below 200 percent of the poverty line. They were asked about maternal stressors such as depression, child-care problems, family and financial difficulties, and health impediments to working. A household's routine access to food was also assessed.
Thirty-seven percent of the children were found to be either overweight or obese; 20 percent to 25 percent lived in low-income families with inadequate access to food -- so-called "food insecure" homes. The researchers found no apparent link between a mother's stress levels and any increased risk of weight problems in "food insecure" households.
But a risk for weight problems was found for children between the ages of 3 and 10 who lived in "food secure" homes, where there was enough food for family members. No such link was found among teens 11 through 17, leaving the researchers to suggest that these children may be more resourceful at finding non-food sources of comfort through school and friends.
So what's a stressed-out, financially strapped mother to do?
"Not to absolve all personal responsibility, but we have to acknowledge that there are some factors that may be beyond an individual's ability to control," Gundersen said. "So with a focus on public policy, there are three important things that can be done. First, we can have a firm social safety net for such households. Second, we can offer financial education to enable people to better understand how to manage their money. And third, we can focus on the importance of making sure everyone has health insurance. So instead of saying here's what mothers can do to alleviate the stress, we're saying here's what we can do as a society."
Lona Sandon, a registered dietitian and assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, agreed that a broad societal response could help address the links between poverty, stress, and poor childhood nutrition.
"It's a big problem because, quite frankly, for many [people] eating healthy is a kind of luxury," she said Sandon, who is also a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "Those with a limited income -- even food secure families -- find that often it's cheaper to go to fast food than to buy fresh produce or fresh meat. Or they perceive that to be the case, because they don't know how to purchase healthier foods on a low budget. So, they end up consuming high-fat, high-calorie items."
"The last thing you're going to worry about is whether your child is obese if you're busy trying to take care of physical needs first, like simply putting a roof over your head," she added.
For more on childhood nutrition, visit the National Institutes of Health.