Too much stress can make your children fat

It is well-known that stress has a negative impact on human health.  Research from a Belgian study, published late last year in Psychoneuroendocrinology, has revealed new findings related to the influence of stress in the unhealthy eating patterns of children.

The “Children´s Body Composition and Stress” study (ChiBS), which is linked to the IDEFICS study coordinated by the Leibniz-Institute for Prevention Research and Epidemiology – BIPS (Bremen, Germany), investigated the association between levels of reported stress, the hormone cortisol and the dietary behaviour of children aged between 5 and 10 years in Aalter (Belgium).

During the study, the dietary patterns of the children were collected alongside a frequency questionnaire used to measure three different stress factors:  Stressful Events, Negative Emotions and Problems.  Problems revealed the strongest association with dietary patterns; the more problems experienced, the higher the frequency of consumption of sweet and fatty foods.

The second stress factor – Events – showed an effect on consumption frequency of fruits.  The more stressful events experienced, the lower the amount of fruit consumed.

Whilst the third stress factor – Negative Emotions – was not related to any changes in food consumption frequency, the children also reported on their appetite for food in the presence of emotions (‘emotional eating’).  And the study revealed that stressful events, negative emotions and problems were all associated with higher incidences of emotional eating.

To test the hypothesis, salivary cortisol samples were taken from the children four times a day.  An increased level of cortisol indicates that a person is stressed and can induce an unhealthy eating behaviour owing to influences on reward pathways and appetite.  Higher cortisol levels were associated with increased frequent consumption of sweet foods, leading to the conclusion that high cortisol levels were therefore linked to an unhealthier dietary pattern. These findings support the theory of cortisol-induced comfort food preference and strengthen the stress-diet relation.

Overall, stressed children had an unhealthier diet and this knowledge should be used in the prevention of stress-induced overweight.  For example, the environment needs to be a ‘healthy food zone’ that minimises opportunities for stress-induced eating.

“Parents and children should also be made aware that stress can influence emotional eating behaviour, so they can pay attention to potential triggers and anticipate this behaviour,” says study author Nathalie Michels.  “Furthermore, children should be equipped with stress-coping skills such as problem-solving thinking or asking for help, instead of seeking solace in food.”

The I.Family project – which is currently building on the work of the IDEFICS and CHiBS studies – continues to assess the dietary behaviour and intake of children and teens, whilst examining their wellbeing within their families, schools and peer groups.  I.Family is tracking topics such as atmosphere at home, bullying, troubling events, self-esteem, sleep duration and quality, as well as the impact of stress and negative emotions on eating patterns.

Further information on the I.Family Study is available at

Ends/Contacts & Notes follow

Media contact for I.Family Study – Rhonda Smith, Minerva (UK)


Relation between salivary cortisol as stress biomarker and dietary pattern in children. (Nathalie Michels, Isabelle Sioen, Caroline Braet, Inge Huybrechts, Barbara Vanaelst, Maike Wolters, Stefaan De Henauw). Published in Psychoneuroendocrinology 2013; 38: 1512-20.

Stress, emotional eating behaviour and dietary patterns in children (Nathalie Michels, Isabelle Sioen, Caroline Braet, Gabriele Eiben, Antje Hebestreit, Inge Huybrechts, Barbara Vanaelst, Krishna Vyncke, Stefaan De Henauw). Published in Appetite 2012;59(3):762-9.

Notes for Editors:

1.      The IDEFICS Study ran from September 2006 to February 2012 was funded under the EU’s Sixth Framework Programme. Researchers in 11 European countries collaborated on the research. The study delivered reliable data to make an international assessment of the problem of “obesity in children” possible. The focus of the IDEFICS Study lied in exploring the risks for overweight and obesity in children as well as associated long-term consequences. Beyond pure research, IDEFICS offered activities for health promotion and prevention in kindergartens and schools. The I Family Study continues the work of IDEFICS, tracking the children as they reach adolescence.

  1. The I Family Study is an EC funded project under Framework 7 of the KBBE programme running from March 2012 to February 2017. It has 17 partners, working across 11 countries and with cohorts in 8 European countries – Germany, Italy, Sweden, Hungary, Cyprus, Estonia, Spain and Belgium.
  2. The I Family Study has two strategic objectives:
    (1) Understand the interplay between barriers against and drivers towards healthy food choice;
    (2) Develop and disseminate strategies to induce changes that promote healthy dietary behaviour in European consumers especially adolescents and their parents
  3. I Family study partners
Participant organisation Lead investigator(s) Key responsibilities
University of Bremen, Germany Wolfgang Ahrens Project coordinator
Leibniz Institute for Prevention Research and Epidemiology – BIPS GmbH, Germany Iris Pigeot German cohort, statistics
Institute of Food Sciences, National Research Council, Italy Alfonso Siani Italian cohort, nutritional epidemiology
Copenhagen Business School, Denmark Lucia Reisch,
Wencke Gwozdz
Consumer behaviour & environmental influences
University of Lancaster, United Kingdom Garrath Williams Ethics, policy, and stakeholder engagement
Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden Staffan Mårild,
Lauren Lissner
Swedish cohort, family analysis
University of Helsinki, Finland Jaakko Kaprio Familial aggregation & genetic modelling
University of the Baleares Islands, Spain Andreu Palou,
Catalina Picó
Genomic analysis
University of Pécs, Hungary Dénes Molnár Hungarian cohort
Rudolf Magnus Institute of Neuroscience, The Netherlands Roger Adan Neuroimaging & neuropsychology
Research and Education Institute of Child Health, Cyprus Michael Tornaritis Cypriot cohort
National Institute for Health Development, Estonia Toomas Veidebaum Estonian cohort
Fondazione IRCCS Istituto Nazionale Tumori, Italy Vittorio Krogh Dietary assessment methods
University of Bristol, United Kingdom Angie Page,
Ashley Cooper
Physical activity monitoring
Minerva PRC Ltd, United Kingdom Rhonda Smith
Emily Nash
Dissemination and communication
University of Zaragoza, Spain Luis Moreno Spanish cohort
Ghent University, Belgium Stefaan De Henauw Belgian cohort


IF-PR5stress FINAL March 2014 

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