The effects of too many family arguments can have a lasting impact on a person’s health, according to a new study published in Preventive Medicine, which found that constant family conflict can lead a child toward obesity.
“Many times when we’re designing interventions and prevention programs, they’re done in schools because that’s where we have ease of access to all these kiddos,” Hernandez told Time magazine. “But the issue is that in those interventions, we don’t think about the family environment and what could be happening at home.”
The study’s lead author, Dr. Daphne Hernandez, looked into the main causes of stress in families: arguments, what happens after a family member gets divorced, remarried or incarcerated, financial stresses and poor maternal health. She then compared these causes of stress with the weight of the children in the surveyed families.
The study found girls from families who had constant arguments — independent of the other stress factors mentioned above — were overweight or obese before turning 18. It wasn’t the same for boys — only poor maternal health led boys to become obese, the study said.
But when you combine all the causes of stress together and compare it to the children’s weights, Hernandez said both boys and girls became obese when there was stress in the home. She said this is because your body seeks cortisol — commonly called “the stress hormone” — when it’s worried or stressed, which can lessen your ability to feel satiated and make you want to eat more, Time magazine reported.
“Behaviorally, you then gravitate more towards the more palatable foods, the high-calorie, high-fat foods, so you’re not reaching for that apple or celery stick,” Hernandez told Time magazine.
It doesn’t help that certain foods also taste better when under stress, according to a study published in the scientific journal Appetite. The study asked participants to eat a potato chip. Researchers found that those who had recently been in a fight or in conflicts thought the chip tasted better.
The study also found that comfort foods are linked to our social relationships. When we feel isolated by our peers, we embrace comfort foods because they make us less worried about the stress caused by isolation, the Appetite study said.
Stress eating could be one cause of child obesity in the United States, where more than one-third of children are obese or overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Childhood obesity has put children at risk for cancer, stroke and heart disease, according to the CDC.
So what’s the solution? Hernandez told Time that families can teach their children how to handle stress in ways other than eating comforting and unhealthy snacks.“We really need to think about how we are teaching our adolescents how to deal with stress, and trying not to use food as a way to deal with stress,” Hernandez told Time magazine. “Perhaps encouraging physical activity is the way we should be going.”