Peter A. Ubel M.D.

Critical Decisions

Do You Overeat? You Might Want to Blame Childhood Stress

Low childhood socioeconomic status predicts eating behavior.

Posted Dec 08, 2016

Lots of us eat when we are stressed. But did you know that even when we are not currently under stress, the amount of food we eat might be influenced by the stress we experienced as children? That’s the conclusion Sarah Hill, a psychologist at TCU, wants us to draw from several studies she ran with colleagues from the Universities of Arizona and Minnesota. In the research, Hill brought college students into her lab and left them in front of snack food while they were taking a break between two parts of a research study. She then looked at how much food people ate during this break, as a function of whether they experienced significant financial stress as a child–e.g. whether they reported “having enough money for things growing up.” Hill also asked people how long it had been since they ate and whether they were hungry. She found that among people with more privileged backgrounds, the amount of food they ate depended largely on how hungry they were. On the other hand, for those from less lofty socioeconomic backgrounds, they ate the same amount of food regardless of their hunger, a.k.a. their “energy needs”:

Sarah Hill
Source: Sarah Hill

In an even more convincing part of her research, she brought people to the lab after all of them had fasted. She gave half of them a glass of Sprite to drink and the others a glass of zero-calorie sparkling water. The Sprite curbed appetites among people with better economic circumstances, but not among those with more challenging childhoods:

Sarah Hill
Source: Sarah Hill

There’s a lot that could be going on here besides childhood socioeconomic status that explains these findings. Dividing people into low and high childhood economic status is a blunt way of studying these complex relationships, and the researchers did not measure all kinds of current socioeconomic factors that might have contributed to these results. Nevertheless, their findings are consistent with the idea that being under financial stress as a child could have long-lasting effects on our eating behavior. This is a plausible idea. If your parents struggled to put food on your table when you were growing up, then you might not need to be hungry to feel the need to eat food when it becomes available.

For people like me, raised in a family with abundant resources, this research serves as a reminder. Eating only when you are hungry–that’s a real luxury!

*Previously Published in Forbes*

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