Children of divorce are more likely to be obese in later life

Children whose parents get divorced are more likely to be obese in later life, a new study warns.

Psychologists at Florida State University investigated how unpredictable childhood experiences – such as violence, divisions, and moving house – affects their weight.

Divorce was one of the biggest triggers that caused young people to over-eat when they reached adulthood.

The researchers said they believe such upsetting events cause children to focus too much on the short-term, since they fear planning for the future or investing their hopes in long-term goals.

These children grow up to ‘live for the now’, psychology professor Jon Maner says. They tend to have kids at an earlier age, spend money instead of saving, and seek immediate gratification from food.

‘Experiencing an unpredictable environment in childhood sensitizes people to the idea that it’s difficult to plan for the future because if you don’t know what’s around the next corner, you live for the now,’ lead researcher Professor Jon Maner said.

‘They end up focusing on short-term rather than long-term goals and they’re not good at delaying gratification.’

Previous studies have confirmed a clear link between low socioeconomic status and obesity.

However, no research has clearly identified the root causes of the problem.

Most published work has concluded that stress in general can lead to a variety of negative outcomes for children in later life.

To try to reach a clearer conclusion, Professor Maner used a well-established barometer from behavioral science called Life History Theory.
The method has been used to predict a wide range of behaviors – from parenting skills to being financially literate.

But it has never been used to study one’s likelihood of being obese or overeating.

Life History Theory is rooted in the idea that people have a limited amount of reproductive energy in their lives, and the way they use that energy is influenced by the amount of structure they experience during childhood.

Unpredictable childhoods can cause a ‘fast-life-history strategy’ for adults, Professor Maner said.

In contrast, predictable childhoods tend to teach that planning for the future is good, and that mindset results in a ‘slow-life-history strategy.’

As adults, they form long-term goals; they often have children at an older age; they are more likely to invest in education and save money for retirement.

‘If you don’t know where the next meal is coming from, it would make sense to eat what you can now,’ Professor Maner said.

‘But people with a slow-life-history strategy feel the future is more certain, and they intuitively know where their next meal will come from. They are inclined to listen to their body and eat based on their current needs.’
Our research suggests it’s not just about reducing stress, it’s more about creating structure and predictability for children
Professor Jon Maner, Florida State University

More than one-third of American adults and 17 percent of youth, aged between two and 19, are obese, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The agency calls obesity a serious, costly problem that causes heart disease, stroke, cancer, liver disease, type 2 diabetes and other health issues. Professor Maner said those negative effects create urgency for researchers and health professionals to identify the behavioral factors causing obesity.

One of the main goals of Professor Maner’s research is to identify ways to prevent obesity. While past research vaguely encouraged families to reduce stress without suggesting clear tips on how to make that happen, Professor Maner said his research points toward some potentially valuable prevention ideas.

‘Our research suggests it’s not just about reducing stress, it’s more about creating structure and predictability for children,’ Professor Maner said.

‘For example, have family meals at the same time each night or bedtime rituals every day. Routines teach children to have expectations that, when met, result in a sense of certainty and structure. Theoretically, that feeling of predictability instills a slower-life-history strategy, which may reduce obesity in adulthood.’

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