Why you should care
Because adolescent stress can result in big problems.
Many of us turn to comfort food — often the sweet, fried or cheesy variety — when we want to relieve stress or need help coping with sadness. Duke University researchers found that teenagers exposed to violence also turn to comfort food. According to a recent study published in the journal Social Science & Medicine:
Teens consume more junk food and high-calorie beverages on days they witness physical violence.
Researchers recruited 151 at-risk teens between the ages of 12 and 15 from low-income neighborhoods in California. Participants were given cellphones programmed to prompt them to complete a survey three times a day for 30 days. They were asked to report on their exposure to physical fighting — at home, school, in their neighborhoods or somewhere else. They also logged their consumption of fast food, sodas and caffeinated drinks, fruits and vegetable intake, amount of physical activity, hours and quality of sleep and degree of tiredness.
The study found a connection: a behavioral reaction to violence, says Joy Piontak, Ph.D., an affiliated scholar in the Sanford School of Public Policy and the study’s lead author. Previous studies have found that children exposed to domestic violence are more likely to become obese later in life, she says.
Sugar releases feel-good neurotransmitters in our brains, so it helps alleviate the negative feelings associated with the stressor.
Dr. A.J. Marsden, Beacon College
While the study didn’t ask participants about witnessing violence through media or video games, Piontak says that type of exposure may not apply because it might not prompt the same emotional response that would cause a teen to feel unsafe. The study highlights the need to understand what is going on in an adolescent’s life to help them adopt healthier behaviors, she adds.
And it may provide insights on how to help prevent adolescent obesity. The study shows us that teens will turn to unhealthy foods loaded with sugar to deal with the stress of being exposed to violence, says Dr. A.J. Marsden, a former U.S. Army surgical nurse who now serves as an assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida. “Sugar releases feel-good neurotransmitters in our brains, so it helps alleviate the negative feelings associated with the stressor.”
All that sugar can lead to obesity, but there’s another negative factor at play. Stress increases the production of cortisol in our bodies, says Dr. Sophia Yen, clinical associate professor of pediatrics and adolescent medicine at Stanford University’s Teen and Young Adult Clinic. And cortisol “signals a metabolic shutdown that makes losing weight almost impossible,” explains Dr. Carolyn Dean, a diet and nutrition expert and author of Kids’ Health: A Doctor’s Guide for Parents. So while a stressed teen is eating extra calories for mental comfort, their bodies’ physical reaction is to stop processing those calories efficiently — leading to weight gain.
The key takeaway: We can’t control the sources of stress — like exposure to violence — so “we need to teach our youth and ourselves healthier ways to deal with stress,” says Dr. Yen. Her suggestions: “meditation, exercise, journaling … talking with friends, hugging and appreciating those around us.”
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