MINNEAPOLIS/ST. PAUL (Nov 22, 2017) – When parents feel elevated stress levels or depressed moods in the morning and early afternoon hours, they were more likely to pressure their kids to eat more food at dinnertime, according to a new study published in the journal Pediatrics.

In addition, stress and depressed moods also increased the likelihood parents would feed their children processed foods. These feeding behaviors – pressuring, being part of the “clean your plate” club, and feeding processed foods – are closely associated with higher rates of childhood obesity, which have more than tripled since the 1970s.

“We know that stress and mood impact food choice, but until now we did not understand how feeding practices can be influenced by moment-by-moment changes in parent stress and mood,” said Jerica Berge, Ph.D., MPH, study author and professor within the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health. “By looking at emotions in-the-moment, we now understand they create lingering side effects that could increase risk of obesity in children.”

 In collaboration with colleagues from the University of Minnesota Medical School and School of Public Health, Berge observed 150 families from six different races and ethnicities with at least one child 5 to 7 years old. Over the span of eights days, parents were prompted via text messages to fill out a survey four times throughout the day.

In the evening, parents were also asked to provide data about their meal and mealtime interactions.

They found that a one-unit increase in stress earlier in the day was associated with 45 percent greater chance of parents engaging in pressure-to-eat feeding practices with their child at dinner the same night. Stress also decreased the proportion of homemade foods served at the dinner table.

Moreover, a one-unit increase in depressed mood earlier in the day was associated with a 42-percent greater chance of parents engaging in pressure-to-eat feeding practices with their child at dinner the same night. Depressed mood also increased the likelihood that processed foods would be served.

Additionally, researchers found that Native American and Somali parents were most likely to pressure their kids to clean their plates, while African American and Hispanic families were most likely to feed their kids processed foods. 

The findings have important implications for reducing risk of childhood obesity, Berge said. Using mindfulness interventions in the moment when parents are feeling stressed or having negative emotions could promote healthier dinners. She and colleagues are already working on a mobile application that will record parents’ momentary stress and send reminders to help them make healthier mealtime decisions in the face of stress or depressed mood.

“Precision medicine isn’t only reserved for cancer or other diseases,” Berge said. “With this data we hope to more precisely help families improve their mealtime behaviors which will potentially reduce childhood obesity.”

The research was supported by grant number R01HL126171 from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.

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