Does childhood stress make women gain weight?

Women who experienced higher levels of childhood stress are more likely to gain weight faster than women who experienced less, says Hui Liu. "Childhood stress is a more important driver of long-term weight gain than adult stress." (Credit: iStockphoto)

Stress in childhood may be a significant factor for women’s weight gain, a new study suggests. In fact, it may be even a bigger culprit that stress during adulthood.

Neither childhood nor adult stress has any impact on weight gain for men.

“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,” says Hui Liu, associate professor of sociology at Michigan State University.

Rapid weight gain

For a new study, published online in the journal Social Science & Medicine, researchers analyzed data from the Americans’ Changing Lives, a national survey in which participants were interviewed four times in a 15-year period. The study included 3,617 people (2,259 women and 1,358 men).

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 problems and never knowing one’s father. Adult stress included such factors 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. Change in body mass is a process that unfolds throughout life, Liu says, and childhood may be a critical period for establishing patterns that have a long-term impact on women’s weight over time.


While women may cope with stress by eating more, men may withdraw or drink alcohol. Gender may also help explain the difference. Depression is associated with emotion-driven eating and weight gain, and women are more likely than men 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,” Liu says, “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.”

The National Institute on Aging and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development funded the work.

Source: Michigan State University