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Early Family Stress May Cause Eating Problems

It came as no surprise to me to run across an article entitled “Constant family arguing can lead to childhood obesity” by Herb Scribner (Las Vegas Review-Journal, 4/24/15). I had that kind of experience and know that it had a huge effect on my eating, especially when the arguing happened at the dinner table. Although I never became obese, I had eating problems and weight concerns from my teens through my thirties.

A study published in Preventive Medicine concludes that “The effects of too many family arguments can have a lasting impact on a person’s health” and “that constant family conflict can lead a child toward obesity.” Dr. Daphne Hernandez cites the main causes of stress in families as: “arguments, what happens after a family member gets divorced, remarried or incarcerated, financial stresses, and poor maternal health.” The study conclusion is shocking: “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.”

“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.” Her explanation: “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. Behaviorally, you then gravitate more towards the more palatable foods, the high-calorie, high-fat foods.” Interestingly, the study found that “certain foods also taste better when under stress,” which explains why we crave them when we feel disregulated.

Being raised in a frequently arguing family is one more reason not to blame yourself for your eating problems. For now, realize when you become emotionally disregulated. Practice calming and soothing strategies. Identify when you’re triggered by intense, upsetting memories and recognize the difference between getting caught up in them and handling stress more effectively now. Learn stress management techniques.

If you’re a parent, nix the loud voices and arguing in front of the children. Explain to your spouse or partner the need to show restraint in consideration of their fragile and developing nervous systems. Get some counseling if your partner can’t act appropriately. If there is arguing in front of the kids, make sure to help soothe and them calm down immediately afterward so they don’t need to turn to food. Comfort them.

Struggle On
Hurdles on the Road to “Normal” Eating

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