Study finds that adults raised with low socioeconomic status are more likely to become obese

Growing up in a stressful environment can cause adults to eat high-energy dense foods when in an energy deficit.

Adults raised with low socioeconomic status (SES) are more likely to be obese later on in life, a new study found. Since these adults grow up in a stressful environment, they are more likely to eat high-energy dense foods even without an energy deficit. 

The study was conducted by Jim Swaffield, a sessional instructor and consumer psychologist at the University of Alberta, and Qi Guo, a researcher from the faculty of education.

To conduct his study, Swaffield sent out an online survey to 311 participants and asked a series of questions to determine their socioeconomic status during their childhood and what type of appetite they have.

“We asked them questions like: did your family have the same as others, more than others, a lot more than others, less than others?” Swaffield said. “If people would say, ‘we didn’t have very much compared to others,’ we knew that they were in the lower SES. We also asked them questions about what their current stress levels are today, [and] there’s a tool to determine whether they have a state or trait appetite.”

A state appetite is defined as eating food when in an energy deficient state. Trait appetite is when someone not in an energy deficit will eat anyway.

After answering the questions, participants were shown 30 images of different food items, half being high-energy dense foods and the other half low-energy dense foods. Participants would describe how desirable each food item was.

With that information, Swaffield concluded that adults who grew up in high-stress environments were more likely to develop trait appetite. As they reached adulthood, adults with trait appetite were more likely to become obese as opposed to those with state appetite. 

Their findings challenged the long-held belief that advertising junk food influences people to eat high-energy dense foods, acting as a precursor to diabetes later on in life. 

“While studying marketing, we would hear a lot about how marketing or promotions would be either a cause or contributing factor to the obesity epidemic. And yet, if we look back at the historical record, we know that obesity has been a problem throughout human history,” Swaffield said. 

To understand the driver of obesity, research has to be done on the causes of obesity prior to the use of advertising.

Before being able to find out those causes, Swaffield needed to answer three questions — what triggers appetite, what influences our food preferences, and why humans tend to overeat. 

One theory as to what triggers appetite is that humans tend to repeat behaviours they find pleasurable, like eating. Another theory Swaffield applied is the insurance hypothesis, which is when an animal eats food even when they aren’t hungry.

“We believe that’s one of the reasons that’s enabled humans to survive — this combination of desiring foods and eating in the absence of an energy deficit.” 

Much like personality, the study found that appetite is hard-wired into your brain in gestation and early childhood. As such, environmental stressors, like concerns over finances and safety, can greatly impact what appetite a person will have, as well as the foods they prefer.

“We’ve seen this from famines, and how babies that were born or that were prenatal during a famine tend to be heavier later on in life.” 

In the future, Swaffield hopes to conduct research on how to alleviate environmental stressors in order to combat the obesity epidemic.

CORRECTION: The article was updated on July 23 at 9:03 p.m. to reflect that adults that grow up in a stressful socioeconomic environment are more likely to eat high-energy dense foods without an energy deficit. The article previously stated that they ate high-energy dense foods in an energy deficit.

Katie Teeling

Katie is the 2022-23 Opinion Editor at The Gateway. She previously served as the Deputy Opinion Editor. She’s in her fourth year, studying anthropology and history. She is obsessed with all things horror, Adam Driver, and Lord of the Rings. When she isn’t crying in Tory about human evolution, Katie can be found drinking iced capps and reading romance novels.

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