Risk of obesity may be associated with socioeconomic status during childhood


A new study suggested that those who experienced socioeconomic stress during childhood were more likely to crave high-energy-dense foods even when they aren’t hungry compared to those raised in stable socioeconomic conditions.

The study, published in the journal, Behavioral Sciences, was led by Jim Swaffield, PhD, consumer psychology researcher with the School of Business at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada as well as Qi Guo, PhD, of the department of educational psychology at the University of Alberta. For this investigation, Swaffield and Guo sought to better understand the connection between stress, appetite, and childhood socioeconomic status.

The study involved a total of 311 participants, 133 men and 178 women. Participants were shown random images of vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, meat/poultry, and sweets and asked to rate how desirable each food was to them. Next, they were asked to fill out a questionnaire about their socioeconomic status during childhood as well as their current stress levels.

The study’s results indicated that those raised in harsh socioeconomic conditions were more likely to be food motivated and desire calorie-dense foods while participants raised in safer socioeconomic conditions were likely to crave food only when hungry.

According to the authors, prior studies have established that stress and appetite are associated. “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 said in a statement. “This research also helps explain why people with lower socioeconomic status, who live in chronically stressful conditions, have higher obesity rates.”

Swaffield said that this research could further scientists understanding of the root cause of obesity and helping facilitate better, more targeted strategies of prevention and treatment.

“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,” said Swaffield.