Unhealthy Eating Habits in Adulthood: Is Childhood Stress Partly to Blame?

Health Writer

Do you know anyone who only eats when they’re hungry and only consumes enough to relieve that hunger? The fact is that many of us struggle with food issues, and stress-eating is at the top of the list. New research suggests, however, that some of our eating patterns are influenced by stress we experienced as children.

Sarah E. Hill, Ph.D., a psychologist at Texas Christian University ran three studies on the topic, published as one article in Psychological Science. College students who were invited into the lab to participate in some of the studies were also left with snacks in front of them while on a break during a research project. The researchers then measured food consumption after the snacking, and with a series of questions posed to the college students, tried to determine if they had experienced any kinds of serious financial stress growing up, and how that childhood experience correlated to hunger — i.e., had it been hours since their last meal or snack? —versus lingering eating habits linked to childhood stress.

The results suggested that among students who came from more privileged backgrounds, snacking directly correlated with feelings of hunger. Among students who shared less than financially secure backgrounds as children, snacking occurred even in the absence of hunger or heightened energy needs.

In another study, college subjects were brought into the lab after fasting. Half the group was given a glass of a sugary soda while the other half was given a glass of water.  The soda curbed further eating among the students from an affluent background, but not among the students from more financially challenged childhoods.

Before we jump to conclusions about the lingering impact of childhood stress on eating habits, let’s look at some other possible factors. Using the theory of “financially challenged” or low and high childhood socio-economic status to explain adult feeding patterns seems a bit simplistic.  Kids can grow up in a family where money is tight but creative approaches to stretching the dollar and incredible warmth and family values would likely limit much of their “childhood stress.” It's also conceivable and likely that kids from upper socio-economic circumstances feel different kinds of stress, as well. Thus the role that childhood economic status and stress play in later issues around food and eating seems a more complicated discussion.

Stress eating can also be a learned habit from parents, regardless of the socioeconomic status of the family.

Most of us, even as kids, are taught to eat beyond fullness — the "clean your plate syndrome" —and some of us also are taught to eat because “others are starving.” Hunger and satiation signals can become impaired over time, and the default is to eat when food is offered. On the other hand, financial poverty and especially food poverty and insecurity can easily prime you to eat whenever you see food, regardless of whether you are hungry or not. That is a hard habit to break, even if later-in-life access to food is ample and steady.

College is also a stressful environment. Stress releases hormones that push many people to eat comfort foods and to overeat. So despite the research findings that there seemed to be different reasons behind the snacking and eating in the two experiments, some of the college kids may have been choosing to eat due to stress in real time. It’s not clear how the researchers controlled for that unique possibility.

2015 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that seems to support Dr. Hill’s study found that kids’ stress levels were rising, as were rates of childhood obesity, and the link between stress-eating and childhood obesity appeared to be clear, setting the stage for future emotional or stress-eating. A child’s inability to deal with, suppress, or soothe feelings of anger, sadness, boredom, loneliness, and fear might be fueling unhealthy “soothing actions” like eating. With repetitive payoff from eating when stressed, regardless of financial circumstance, the child is primed to become an adult who self-soothes with food.

Finally, many parents prime their kids for emotional eating by offering food rewards for positive and negative emotional experiences. Kids are given treats for good grades and to assuage disappointment from bad grades, for sports wins and losses, for celebration, and for limiting feelings of disappointment. In essence, kids are primed to eat in response to emotional highs and lows — stress included. So the college students may have been primed to feel like the snack was a reward offered for participating in the research project. Who says no to a reward?

How can you manage stressful eating if you learned it as a child?

  • Identify if you are a stressful eater and try to pinpoint the triggers that set you off
  • Learn to identify true hunger and emotional hunger
  • Become a mindful eater, which means eating more slowly and thoughtfully. This can help you to manage a sudden urge to eat due to stress, giving you time to assess the eating behavior and slow down or stop
  • Practice impulse control
  • Learn to substitute other behaviors instead of turning to food
  • Try deep breathing to quell stress and emotional upheaval

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Amy Hendel, also known as The HealthGal, is a Physician Assistant, nutritionist and fitness expert.  As a health media personality, she's been reporting and blogging on lifestyle issues and health news for over 20 years. Author of The 4 Habits of Healthy Families, her website offers daily health reports, links to her blogs, and a library of lifestyle video segments