Teens Gain Weight When They're Irate

When in a sour mood, they turn to food, study says

FRIDAY, March 5, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- If your teenager is scowling, you may want to consider hiding the Cheetos: A new study suggests teens turn to "comfort food" when bad moods strike, raising their risk for serious weight gain.

"Problems expressing anger can translate into eating disorders and increased weight, which leads to a high risk of cardiovascular disease at a young age," study author William H. Mueller, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Texas Heath Science Center, says in a statement. He presented the findings March 5 at the American Heart Association's Annual Conference on Cardiovascular Disease, Epidemiology and Prevention in San Francisco.

"The general idea that negative emotions are relative to weight has been around for a long time," explains Michael Lowe, a professor of psychology at Drexel University in Philadelphia. "But the idea that anger might be a specific emotion that might be related to overeating is a relatively new idea."

In their study, Mueller and his colleagues compared the "anger control scores" and body weight of 160 boys and girls between 14 and 17 years of age.

A high anger control score meant the teen dealt with anger in a healthy way, by letting it go or calmly talking it out. On the other hand, kids with low anger control scores tended to retreat into isolated rumination, or act out their rage by slamming doors, shouting and other aggressive behaviors.

The researchers identified one significant trend: Adolescents with low anger control also tended to be overweight. The association was slightly stronger in girls than boys.

"These kids develop unhealthy ways of dealing with their emotions," Mueller says. In many cases, "they tend to isolate themselves, watch TV, or read rather than connecting with their friends."

Lowe, an expert on the mood-eating connection, says there are many theories that explain why negative emotions might trigger snack attacks in teens.

One theory holds that parents may have been too quick to provide toddlers with food whenever they seemed upset, leading those children "to confuse emotional distress and hunger" as they got older.

Another theory suggests bad moods may simply overwhelm teens, causing them to temporarily abandon more disciplined eating habits. "This is sometimes referred to as the 'what-the-hell effect,'" Lowe says. "'I can't maintain this diet anyway, so what the hell, there's food there -- I'll have some.'"

Sound familiar? Lowe suspects these types of mood-food interactions are shared by teens and adults alike. "I've no reason to suspect that it would be any different," he says.

But among teens, especially, obesity itself might trigger more negative emotions -- and more overeating. "Being significantly overweight in our society is stigmatizing and harmful to self-esteem for a wide variety of reasons," Lowe says. "So sure, a kind of vicious cycle could occur."

Parents have a key role to play in keeping their kids' eating habits safe, sane and sensible. "You can think about doing something on two levels," Lowe suggests. "One thing, of course, is to help the child emotionally" -- being sensitive to their moods and available if they need helping dealing with troubled emotions.

The other solution lies in the kitchen. "Any association between emotions and eating is going to be worse, the worse the food is that's around the house," Lowe says. Banning high-fat, high-calorie junk food from cupboards and fridges means kids will pack on fewer pounds whenever they 'pig out,' regardless of whether anger is the cause. "If they are going to indulge, make the indulging less harmful," he says.

Two other studies presented at the same meeting also focused on teen weight gain and its effects on heart health.

In one study, researchers at Morehouse School of Medicine examined U.S. government data collected on more than 12,000 children beginning in the 1970s and found childhood obesity was strongly associated with high blood pressure. Similar to trends observed in adult populations, hypertension in kids first arises about 10 years after the child is classified as seriously overweight or obese.

"Intervention in weight control needs to start early," study author Dr. Rebecca Din-Dzietham says in a statement. "We know that children with high blood pressure develop signs of heart disease early. Weight is the main culprit."

The discovery that a specific fat protein, adiponectin, might be used to spot kids at high risk for obesity-related heart disease is the main finding of a second study.

Researchers at A.I. Dupont Hospital in Wilmington, Del., compared levels of cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, insulin sensitivity and blood adiponectin in 48 obese children and 23 normal-weight kids between 2 and 20 years of age.

Only low levels of adiponectin successfully spotted those kids at high risk for obesity and heart disease.

In a statement, lead researcher Dr. Sandra G. Hassink explains adiponectin appears to stick to blood vessel walls, shielding them from damage at the cellular level.

"Lower levels of adiponectin mean less protection for blood vessels, which may lead to adult heart disease," explains Hassink, a professor of pediatrics at Thomas Jefferson University. Although the study is very small, it may point the way to an early-detection test doctors might someday use to spot children at high risk for heart disease.

More information

The American Heart Association has information on obesity and children. For tips on how to get your child to eat well, try the American Dietetic Association.

SOURCES: Michael Lowe, Ph.D, professor, psychology, Drexel University, Philadelphia; March 5, 2004, presentation, American Heart Association Annual Conference on Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology and Prevention, San Francisco
Consumer News