Growing up Poor Can Lead to Overeating in Adulthood, Even When Full

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Growing up Poor Leads OvereatingA new study suggests that calorie intake is higher among “full” individuals who grew up with low socioeconomic status.

With the growing obesity epidemic, we are stumped on how to effectively intervene and put a stop to the increasing rates. While many factors appear to be obvious, such as poor dietary choices and a lack of physical activity, several studies have demonstrated that perhaps there are other environmental or social factors contributing to obesity risks, such as growing up with low socioeconomic status (SES). Many studies have shown that children who grow up in low-income households are at an increased risk of adulthood obesity and type 2 diabetes—regardless of their wealth in adulthood.

Perhaps children of low SES are at greater risk of childhood obesity because of their lack of access to healthy foods and safe spaces for engaging in physical activity. Growing up in such hardship may have psychologically ingrained in their minds that when food is plentiful, you indulge because you won’t know the next time it will be available. This promotes survival in times of scarcity and indulgence in times of abundance. Generally, people consume more when they are hungry than when they are full, however, having limited access to such resources may have led to distorted brain signaling in hunger and satiety cues, leading to consumption even when their body doesn’t need food.

A recent study published in Psychological Science evaluated how growing up in low SES environments affected adults’ food intake, regardless of energy needs when exposed to food. Researchers conducted three studies assessing university students’ intakes and their level of hunger upon being exposed to various snacks. Participants were led to believe they were participating in consumer research studies.

In the first study, researchers surveyed 31 normal-weight female university students inquiring about their height, weight, childhood SES, length of time since their last meal, and hunger level. Findings revealed that when participants were hungry, there were no differences in calorie intake regardless of childhood SES. However, when energy needs were low, those who grew up with low SES had a higher calorie intake compared to individuals who grew up with higher SES.

The second study included 55 normal-weight female university students aged 18 to 25. Participants had refrained from eating or drinking anything five hours prior to the study. Researchers gave them either a calorie beverage, Sprite, or a non-caloric beverage, sparkling water. They gave participants snacks ten minutes later. Findings revealed that drinking water meant increased energy needs. Among this group, SES was not a factor for consuming snacks and their calorie intakes were higher than those who drank the Sprite and therefore had lower energy needs. The Sprite group who had grown up with lower SES had increased calorie intake, whereas those who had grown up with higher SES had lower intake.

The final study was similar to the second study and included a group of 77 normal-weight male and female university students. Researchers measured their blood-glucose levels to evaluate energy needs. Findings revealed that blood-sugar levels were higher among those consuming Sprite compared to water, indicating reduced energy needs. Results were similar to the other studies. Those with increased needs and lower blood-glucose levels had increased calorie intake, regardless of SES growing up. However, when blood-glucose levels were higher and energy needs were lower, those with low childhood SES had significantly higher calorie intake compared to individuals with higher childhood SES.

“We were surprised by the lasting impact that one’s childhood environment plays in guiding food intake in adulthood. We were also surprised by the fact that one’s level of wealth in adulthood had almost no impact on patterns of food intake. Our research suggests that people who grew up in relatively impoverished environments may have a harder time controlling food intake and managing their body weight than those who grew up in wealthier environments,” explained lead author Sarah Hill.

Source for Today’s Article:
Hill, S.E., et al., “Low childhood socioeconomic status promotes eating in the absence of energy need,” Psychological Science, 2016; doi: 10.1177/0956797615621901.


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Leah Shainhouse, R.D.

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Leah Shainhouse is a Registered Dietitian with the College of Dietitians of Ontario and a member of the Dietitians of Canada. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science, Honors, in Nutritional Sciences from the University of British Columbia and went on to complete her dietetic training and Master of Science degree in Human Nutrition at McGill University. Leah has a strong desire to help shape the lives of individuals through a healthy lifestyle. She enjoys working with people to help... Read Full Bio »