People who experience unstable or unpredictable childhoods (divorce, frequent moves, crime) are at greater risk of becoming obese in adulthood than those raised in stable, structured environments, suggests a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
With the aim of identifying ways to prevent obesity — an epidemic affecting 17% of children and adolescents and a third of adults in the US — researchers from Florida State University investigated the psychological and behavioural causes of obesity originating from childhood. They also looked at stressful experiences early in life, which can increase the risk of experiencing health problems and developing chronic illness in adulthood. The study reports that an unpredictable environment, often linked to low socioeconomic status, could also lead to overeating later in life.
Growing up in an unpredictable environment could teach children that it’s difficult to plan for the future, encouraging them to live for the moment since they don’t know what’s coming next. This “unpredictable” context tends to focus on the short term rather than on long-term goals. “If you don’t know where the next meal is coming from, it would make sense to eat what you can now,” explains Jon Maner, psychology professor and author of the study.
According to the research, unpredictable childhoods can lead to a “live for the now” mindset, with such children often going on to have their own children at an earlier age, to spend money rather than save and to seek immediate gratification.
In contrast, the study found that children who experienced predictable childhoods, growing up with structured daily routines, were more inclined to form long-term goals and to listen to their body and eat in relation to their needs.
The authors encourage parents to create structure and predictability for their children, such as having family meals at roughly the same time or sticking to the same bedtime rituals each night. This teaches children to have expectations which are then met, creating certainty and structure, which could help reduce their risk of obesity in adult life.