August 1, 2003 -- It's a bad pattern that starts early: Young kids, feeling stressed, eat more high-fat junk foods and fewer nutritious meals.
In this month's issue of Health Psychology, children's nutrition -- during times of duress -- gets a closer look. While other studies of stress-related eating have focused on adolescents and adults, this one looks at the effects on younger kids.
It's important, because children's nutrition habits likely continue into adulthood -- leading to the current obesity crisis, writes lead researcher Martin Cartwright, an epidemiologist with Cancer Research UK Healthy Behavior at the University College London.
His study of 4,320 schoolchildren -- all about age 11 -- assessed the children's stress levels by asking them questions like, "How often have you felt that you couldn't control the important things in your life?"
To get a picture of the children's nutrition habits, researchers asked how often they ate 34 different fatty foods, how many fruits and vegetables they had each day, how often they snacked, and how frequently they ate breakfast -- because eating a healthy breakfast has been shown to have a positive effect on long-term health, Cartwright points out.
Researchers found that the kids slipped into unhealthy eating habits as their lives got more stressful. In fact, stressed kids ate twice the amount of bad stuff as the less-stressed kids. And they didn't simply overeat -- they snacked on junk food and ignored healthy foods.
"Children in the most stressed category ate more fatty foods and more snacks, but they were also less likely to consumer the recommended five or more fruits and vegetables or eat a daily breakfast," writes Cartwright.
Children's nutrition can nose-dive during times of stress, and could establish a lifetime pattern of bad eating habits, he says.