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Why do children from disadvantaged families have a higher risk of developing childhood obesity?

Ana R. Sepúlveda, Tatiana Lacruz, Santos Solano, Marta Rojo, Francisco J. Román and Miriam Blanco, ANOBAS research group, Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM); Adapted by: Sílvia Galilea and Carina Bellver (StoryData)

In an attempt to improve childhood obesity prevention, in this article we focus on one of the multiple factors that can cause it and determine in what way a family environment characterised by economic difficulties and a low educational level affects the appearance of this condition among children.
Key points
  • 1
       Families with a low educational level and low income have a greater predisposition to experience psychological distress. The lower a family’s socioeconomic status, the more evident its symptoms of anxiety and depression.
  • 2
       This psychological distress generates a negative family environment, in such a way that an increase in symptoms of anxiety and depression tends to be associated with weaker family cohesion, worse adaptation to change, weaker bonds within the couple and lack of parental emotional involvement with their children.
  • 3
       Children who grow up in this type of family environment show higher levels of psychological distress than others. The results indicate that the worse the score in relation to family environment, the more severe the symptoms of anxiety and depression of its members, which cause low self-esteem in the child.
  • 4
       In order to mitigate this low self-esteem and sadness, children use food as an outlet valve. This psychological distress is related to loss of control when eating. However, the sensation of distress also clouds the child’s awareness of the amount of food he or she is eating.
  • 5
       In turn, the sensation of loss of control when eating is related to a higher body mass index, the main indicator used to diagnose obesity. These five points form a theoretical model in which each step predicts the next.
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In this article we attempt to validate the theoretical model developed by Erik Hemmingsson (Hemmingsson, 2014), a recognised world expert on obesity, with the aim of demonstrating the role played by children’s psychological and emotional well-being in childhood obesity prevention.

Hemmingsson’s model comprises five interlinked stages in which each stage predicts the next. A cause-and-effect relationship is thus proposed. The study set forth below verifies, for the first time, that these steps are all interconnected, that each stage is related to the next, and that the model works. It is shown, therefore, that children use food to mitigate the emotional instability caused by a family environment in which low income and a low educational level prevail.

The research study lasted five years and involved the participation of 220 families attending two primary care centres and several state schools in Madrid. The children evaluated were of different weights and were aged between 8 and 12. Children with obesity caused by a disease were excluded, as were those without a sufficient oral or written proficiency of Spanish and those who suffered from a developmental disorder. The steps of the model were drawn up using various methodologies, focusing primarily on interviews and questionnaires for each factor.

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