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Is stress/trauma making our kids obese?

Landmark study looks at link between adult obesity and childhood experiences

For three decades, researchers have known about a link between adult obesity and childhood experiences with trauma and abuse.

The ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences Study) was developed by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and Kaiser Permanente’s Health Appraisal Clinic. For 30 years now, this study has been duplicated many times, making the sample size extremely large. The ACE Study showed, among many things, that if we want to understand obesity and other major threats to our physical health, perhaps we should take a look at our childhood.

Adult participants in the ACE Study reported whether or not they had experienced certain traumatic events such as physical/sexual abuse, neglect, or other family challenges. Traumatic family challenges were defined as domestic violence, divorce, mental illness, substance abuse by a family member living in the home or separation from a caregiver. As the sample size has grown, the ACE study findings have suggested that these experiences are more common than expected and between 60-64 percent of adults had experienced at least one Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). With an ACE score of four or more, the risk factors for the leading causes of illness, death, and overall poor quality of life in adults greatly increase.

Think of the ACE Study like a cholesterol score for childhood trauma. The higher the ACE Score, the higher the risk of health and social issues. Knowing this, Lena Zettler, director of Psychology at Cook Children’s, calls us to look at obesity through a different lens.

“If you look at the research on adult health problems, including adult obesity, we now understand that is a common denominator,” Zettler said.

So what does that mean for childhood obesity? It could mean that childhood overeating is a symptom of unrecognized stress or trauma.

This unrecognized trauma can be a reaction to many different things, such as families fracturing, mental illness of a family member, absence of a parent, divorce or abuse. Without considering children’s stressful experiences, we could be missing the point. Therefore, treatment efforts for obesity would be ineffective because the root of the problem was not properly pinpointed.

“Overeating may be the manifestation of a family problem for some children and a way to mitigate their stress,” Zettler said.

According to the ACE Study, “The causes of obesity can either be conscious or unconscious compensatory behaviors which were put in place as solutions to problems dating back to the earliest years, but hidden by time, shame, secrecy, and social taboos against exploring certain areas of life experience.”

Attempts to combat obesity by calorie counting and exercise alone could be futile if we do not also consider what stress a child may be experiencing at home. Childhood trauma can cause the biology of cells and tissues to change, potentially altering both their emotional and physical health. Our brains react to adverse situations by entering into fight, flight, or freeze mode. This causes the continual release of an overabundance of stress hormones, which is linked to weight gain.

Typically, the 1 in 3 children and adolescents in the United States are diagnosed with obesity. To combat this problem, Zettler says, “we need to consider all aspects of a child’s life, especially what may be going on at home and how that child is reacting to toxic stress.”

“Children and teens who are experiencing weight gain, overeating, or obesity should first consult with their pediatrician or family practice physician for a full medical evaluation,” Lena said.

Cook Children’s offers outpatient psychological assessments in seven clinics across Tarrant and Denton County. To access services, please call our Behavioral Health Intake Department at 682.885.3917.

Written by Elizabeth Sparks

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