A study of 4,320 schoolchildren found that they tended to slip into generally unhealthful dietary practices as their lives grew more stressful. Rather than simply overeating in response, they munched more often on bad stuff while ignoring healthy ways to eat, says the report in the August issue of the journal Health Psychology.
"Children in the most stressed category ate more fatty foods and more snacks, but they were also less likely to consume the recommended five or more fruits and vegetables or eat a daily breakfast," says Jane Wardle, director of Cancer Research UK's Health Behaviour Unit. Some prior researchers had found that stress was linked to eating more, while others connected it with eating less.
This could be bad news down the road, the researchers note: Obesity heading into the teenage years increases the chances of being overweight as an adult, which can then lead to increased risk of heart disease, cancer or Type 2 diabetes.
Wardle's team asked the children to take a standard test for stress, with questions like, "How often have you felt that you couldn't control the important things in your life?"
They also inquired about the students' consumption of 34 fatty food items, and how many servings of fruit and vegetables they ate each day, how often they snacked, and how frequently they ate breakfast. (Eating a healthy breakfast has been shown to have a positive effect on long-term health.)
Wardle found that the strongest association for stress was with fatty foods. The most stressed students ate nearly twice the amount of the least stressed group, she says.
Curiously, overweight students said they were less likely to eat fatty foods, snacks and breakfast. Overweight children claiming to eat less may seem contradictory, but Wardle says that obese adults typically underreport their daily energy intake, too.
Ethnic identity played a role in eating patterns, too. Asian students, who made up 8 percent of the sample, ate the best diets, and black students (comprising 19 percent) the worst, with white children (62 percent of the participants) in the middle. Higher socioeconomic status was also correlated with healthier eating practices.
"Stress appears to be consistently harmful to children in terms of steering their food choices away from the healthy and towards the unhealthy," she says.
Wardle and her collaborators hope to follow this group of children, observing them as they grow older, to track their diets and their health.
The study was funded by a grant from Cancer Research UK and the Department of Health.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Health Behavior News Service: 202-387-2829 or www.hbns.org.
Interviews: Contact Jane Wardle at email@example.com.
Health Psychology: Contact Arthur Stone, Ph.D., at 631-632-8833.
BY AARON LEVIN, STAFF WRITER
HEALTH BEHAVIOR NEWS SERVICE