News Release

Socioeconomic stress in childhood may be linked with obesity later in life

Research challenges the idea that junk food advertising is behind rising rates of obesity.

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of Alberta

EDMONTON – Stressful childhood environments are a precursor for obesity later in life according to a University Alberta study that challenges the notion that advertising junk food is at the root of the obesity epidemic.

Jim Swaffield, consumer psychology researcher with the Alberta School of Business, who  conducted the study with Qi Guo, researcher from the Faculty of Education, explains it has long been known that stress triggers appetite.“However, what we did not know was that stressful conditions experienced during early childhood appear to calibrate the brain to desire high-energy-dense foods throughout one’s lifespan,” Swaffield continues. “This research also helps explain why people with lower socioeconomic status, who live in chronically stressful conditions, have higher obesity rates.”

For the study, 311 adults (133 men and 178 women) were shown random images of food items from each of the six major food categories — vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, meat/poultry, and sweets — and rated how desirable each food item is.

The participants were then asked a series of questions about their early childhood socioeconomic conditions and current stress level.

What they discovered was that adults who were raised in harsh socioeconomic conditions were very food motivated and largely desired only energy-dense foods, whereas adults who were raised in safe socioeconomic conditions were more likely to eat only when hungry.

Swaffield and Gou’s study comes as pressure mounts to ban advertising of junk food. And though banning junk food ads makes intuitive sense, Swaffield notes there are real-world implications if the correlation between obesity and advertising is spurious.

“If we err in identifying the cause of obesity, we will fail to develop a strategy to remedy this problem, and the number of people who live with these conditions will continue to grow.”

The study, “How Childhood Socioeconomic Status Impacts Adult Food Preference: The Mediating Role of Stress and Trait Appetite,” was published in the journal Behavioral Sciences.

To read the full story, click here. For more information please contact:

Michael Brown
UAlberta media strategist

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