By: 11 July 2015
Childhood stress fuels weight gain in women

Childhood stress fuels weight gain in women

National study looks at lifelong consequences of stress on weight gain

When it comes to weight gain for women, childhood stress appears to be a bigger culprit than stress during adulthood, according to the results of a new national study. Interestingly, neither childhood nor adult stress was associated with weight gain for men.

The study, published in Social Science & Medicine, is the first to examine such lifelong consequences of stress on weight change.

“These findings add to our understanding of how childhood stress is a more important driver of long-term weight gain than adult stress, and how such processes differ for men and women,” said Hui Liu, associate professor of sociology at Michigan State University.

Liu and her longtime collaborator, Debra Umberson from the University of Texas, analysed the data from the Americans’ Changing Lives survey in which 3617 participants (2259 women and 1358 men) were interviewed four times over a 15-year period.

Childhood stress was measured on a range of family-related stressors that occurred at age 16 or younger such as economic hardship, divorce, at least one parent with mental health problem and never knowing one’s father. Adult stress included factors such as job loss, death of a significant other and parental and care-provider stress.

Women who experienced higher levels of childhood stress gained weight more rapidly than women who experienced less childhood stress, said Liu. Change in body mass is a process that unfolds throughout life, she noted, and childhood may be a critical period for establishing patterns that have a long-term impact on women’s weight over time.

As far as stress not significantly affecting men’s weight, Liu said men and women respond to stress differently. It may be that women eat more to cope with stress, whereas men are more likely to engage in less weight-related strategies such as withdrawing or drinking alcohol, she said. Gender differences in depression may also help explain the difference. Depression is associated with emotion-driven eating and weight gain, and females are more likely than males to be depressed after adolescence.

The findings highlight the need for treatment and policies designed to reduce stress in childhood.

“Given the importance of body mass on health and disability,” said Liu, “it’s important that we consider the sex-specific social contexts of early childhood in order to design effective clinical programs that prevent or treat obesity later in life.”


Liu, H. & Umberson, D. (2015) Gender, stress in childhood and adulthood, and trajectories of change in body mass. Social Science & Medicine 139: 61 doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2015.06.026

Source: Michigan State University