Girls exposed to a number of social risk factors in early childhood are significantly more likely to be obese by age 5, but young boys aren't prone to the same effects, according to a new study published online today in the journal Pediatrics.
Researchers examined data on 1,605 children from Princeton University's Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, which compiled information about the social risk factors each child was exposed to, along with their height and weight measurements. Previous research suggested that cumulative social stress could result in negative health outcomes, leading to this study examining the relationship between social stressors and obesity in young children.
At ages 1 and 3, each child was assessed for six social risk factors, which were combined into a "cumulative social risk score": maternal mental health, maternal substance abuse, intimate partner violence, housing insecurity, food insecurity, and father's incarceration. The height and weight measurements were taken at age 5. Of the children in the study, 17 percent were obese.
Based on the data, girls who experienced more than one social risk factor at 1 or 3 years old were "at significantly increased odds of being obese" by the time they were 5. Girls exposed to more than two of the six social risk factors had even higher odds of being obese by age 5. However, "no significant associations were noted among boys."
In other words, difficult living situations—having a father in jail, not knowing where your next meal will come from, etc.—appear to affect boys and girls in radically different ways.
Therefore, "understanding the social context of families could make for more effective preventive efforts to combat childhood obesity," the study authors surmise.
Children who experienced two or more of the social stressors at the same time were more likely to be obese by age 5 than those who experienced different stressors over a longer period of time. The accumulation of stressors still may play a role in youth obesity, the researchers conclude, but "being exposed to multiple factors at the same time is more important to the development of obesity."
When trying to explain the different reactions to boys and girls, the authors note, "It has been proposed that these differential effects could be the result of differences in coping mechanisms; girls may be more likely to respond to stress with emotional and binge eating."
However, they suggest future research should further evaluate the differences between the genders.
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