Eyes of a Child

Toxic Stress Fueling the Obesity Epidemic

Behind the epidemic rates of obesity, mostly hidden from view, lies an epidemic of toxic stress. At the National Academies Roundtable on Obesity Solutions on Wednesday, Bill Dietz led a tour de force of presentations that described the problem with impressive clarity. In people with adverse childhood experiences — such as exposure to abuse, violence, or neglect — rates of obesity and especially severe obesity are dramatically higher. Normal metabolic function is disrupted and the chronic disease of obesity takes root in a form that can be especially resistant to medical care. Summing up his overview, Dietz said:

While toxic stress has a more visible effect on some communities, its impact cuts across all communities, regardless of gender, race, and ethnicity. Our challenge is to address toxic stress as an American problem that profoundly affects us all.

Pediatricians caring for children in stressed communities describe an epidemic of toxic stress. St Louis University professor of pediatrics Kenneth Haller said recently:

I see all these beautiful babies, and I think of all the statistics, and I can calculate which of these babies is going to have problems because their home environment is so stressed that they are never going to get the right support they need to turn on those genes to get a happy involvement in life.

Partly because of the neglected issue of toxic stress, rates of severe childhood obesity continue to grow unchecked. More than nine million children in America suffer from severe obesity, which will bring a lifetime of diminished health and quality of life. A devastating assortment of other physical and mental health problems will follow for many more children. This tragedy will sap economic vitality from every community through the waste of human potential.

It doesn’t really matter whether you view this as a human tragedy or an economic disaster. It’s a problem we must repair by building stronger communities that care for every precious child among us.

Click here to read more from The Atlantic and here to read more from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Click here for more on the science of toxic stress, health, and obesity. Click here for a recent study of adverse family experiences and childhood obesity.

Eyes of a Child, photograph © JosephB / flickr

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June 9, 2016

6 Responses to “Toxic Stress Fueling the Obesity Epidemic”

  1. June 09, 2016 at 8:09 am, Joe Gitchell said:

    Thank you, Ted, for drawing attention to this important and daunting challenge.

    But every little step can help!


    • June 09, 2016 at 1:48 pm, Ted said:

      Extend the membrane, Joe!

  2. June 10, 2016 at 12:38 pm, Allen Browne said:

    Toxic stress is another example of how the disease of obesity is far more complicated than calories in and calories out. And treatment has to be multidisciplinary , based on physiology, and based on evidence. The energy regulatory system is complex and right now it is taking a whack from many angles.

  3. June 11, 2016 at 4:57 am, M said:

    I wonder if any strong stress can have the same effect. Certainly kids are bullied for other reasons than being fat. Studies have shown that children as young as five can parrot their parents’ negative attitudes about weight and start worrying about their weight whether it is an issue. Others have found that family attitudes about obesity can influence future weight gain and, more horrifying (to me), convincing girls that they are fat whether or not they actually are may lead them to become obese in their future.

    This would lead into my rant about society’s attitude about obesity being a large (no pun intended) contributor to the obesity issue in general, but I suspect I’d be ranting at the choir.

    Random Opinionated Schmoe who came over here via Dr Sharma’s blog

    & fellow Yinzer 🙂

  4. June 14, 2016 at 2:33 pm, Taylor Green said:

    Interesting. Kids healthy is important to us, and we believe that every child should be able to live a healthy and active life. That starts with them making the right choices when it comes to what they put on their plate. We have a program that helps kids take that first step! Let us know how we can help support the cause!