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It’s well established that we’re more likely to gain weight in periods of stress. New research out of Iowa State, to be published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, demonstrates this specifically for teens.

The researchers studied over 1,000 adolescents from three cities (Boston, Chicago and San Antonio). The rate of overweight and obesity increased by almost 20% over the duration of the study period for those teens who were impacted by four or more stressors, such as poor grades, mental health problems, more aggressive behavior, or doing drugs and alcohol.

In thinking about the relationship between stress and obesity, the New York Times published an interesting chart last week that we reproduce below:


In high stress countries like the U.S., we spend less time each day eating and have the world’s highest rate of adult obesity. In contrast, countries like France and Italy, which are believed to be somewhat lower stress places to live (i.e., shorter work weeks, longer vacations), a greater percentage of families prepare and sit down for extended meals multiple times each day. Obesity rates in these lower stress countries are significantly lower.

Apparently economic stress has a similar effect. In a separate study published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, researcher Jeremy Arkes of the Naval Postgraduate School found that 15-18 year-old females gain weight during weak economic periods.

Arkes drew his conclusions by analyzing data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, focusing on the years 1997 to 2004. After controlling for other variables known to affect weight (including a range of family characteristics), he compared the BMI of teens with the unemployment rate in their home states, as averaged over the previous year. He found that “an increase in the state unemployment rate of one percentage point causes the female teenagers in that state to rise 1.8 percentiles in the BMI distribution, on average.”

Why does economic stress increase overweight and obesity? Researchers at England’s University of Hertfordshire think they know the answer, based on hundreds of interviews with young people ages 13-15, along with their parents. According to Dr. Wendy Mills at Hertfordshire, those who are less well off economically are focused on a need to “get by,” which impedes a future-oriented outlook. In contrast, people with means “are able to prioritize future-relevant behaviors relating to diet, weight and health.”

Meanwhile, the drumbeat of bad news continues regarding the range of health issues correlated to obesity. In the February issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, researchers correlated obesity to a higher prevalence of more than 100 diseases and conditions.

The study evaluated a database of more than 700,000 employees at large employers throughout the U.S. The study found that employees with morbid obesity had significantly higher annual prevalence rates in all 17 major diagnostic categories (MDC) except pregnancy and perinatal conditions and a higher prevalence in 102 out of 131 specific diagnostic categories, as classified by the AHRQ. The annual prevalence of diseases and conditions in employees with morbid obesity and employees who did not have morbid obesity compared as follows:

  • Hypertension (42% vs. 12%)
  • Hyperlipidemia (32% vs. 13%)
  • Diabetes with or without complications (29% vs. 7%)
  • Intervertebral disc disorders (27% vs. 14%)
  • Osteoarthritis (13% vs. 2.5%)
  • Asthma (11% vs. 4%)

So despite economic stress – in fact, due to stress – it’s more important than ever to really focus on helping your child return to a healthy weight.