Food Insecurity and Harsh Parenting May Lead to Obesity

Parents sitting at table with sulking daughterYoung women who have inconsistent access to food in childhood and whose parents are excessively disciplinary are more likely to become overweight or obese, according to a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health. This correlation was present only in young women, not young men.

Public health organizations have deemed obesity a national public health crisis. According to the United States National Institutes of Health, more than 2 in 3 adults are medically classified as overweight or obese. Obesity increases the risk of a wide array of medical issues, including diabetes, endocrine system dysfunction, joint problems, pregnancy complications, and cardiovascular health issues.

Studying Obesity Risk in Adolescents

For the study, researchers pulled data from the Iowa Youth and Families Project. This longitudinal study of 451 teenagers and their families began in the Midwest in 1989. Participants were 13 years old at the study’s inception.

Parents and adolescents self-reported their food insecurity and behavior, and cameras were set up in homes to record interactions between family members. Ten years later, when participants were 23, researchers weighed them to assess for obesity.

The risk of obesity was higher in women whose parents used harsh disciplinary tactics, particularly when the women had inadequate access to healthy food.

The Role of Stress in Obesity

The association between harsh parenting, food insecurity, and obesity may be due to stress, the study’s authors say. The study did not directly assess the role of stress or measure endocrine functioning in participants, but food deprivation and other stressors can increase cortisol production, altering the endocrine system and leading to more weight gain.

Previous studies have linked stress to weight gain and metabolic dysfunction. For example, one 2015 study found negative body image can increase the risk of obesity. Another found negative comments from loved ones about weight can promote weight gain.


  1. Harsh parenting, food insecurity predicts obesity for young women. (2016, June 21). Retrieved from
  2. Lohman, B. J., Gillette, M. T., & Neppl, T. K. (2016). Harsh parenting and food insecurity in adolescence: The association with emerging adult obesity. Journal of Adolescent Health, 59(1), 123-127. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2016.03.024
  3. Overweight and obesity statistics. (2012, October). Retrieved from

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  • Taylor


    June 27th, 2016 at 1:16 PM

    I’m overweight so I’m guessing that I had too much food security when growing up, that an parents who always made me clean our plates

  • Gray


    June 28th, 2016 at 11:41 AM

    We are doing all the wrong things it seems when it comes to teaching our younger generation about the necessity of eating healthy and making healthy lifestyle choices. Not giving kids access to healthy food options or withholding food from them when they are young as some form of punishment it just seems like one of the most terrible things that we can do! Why even have children if you are going to use something as basic as food and security over their heads or as punishment? This is unreal that there are children who are forced to grow up in this sort of environment.

  • lesa


    June 29th, 2016 at 5:22 AM

    I self soothe with food and a lot of that comes form growing up with parents who were overly critical of every move and decision that I made. In my thirties and I am still working on all of that.

  • Jeremy


    June 30th, 2016 at 10:40 AM

    There is a big difference living in a home where there is not enough food because there is no money and living in a home where the food could be plenty and yet the parents choose to use this as a form of punishment. I get it that the bottom line is when you are hungry you are hungry and whether it is available in the home or not makes little difference in that fact. But I would think that there is more security in knowing that the parents are working hard every day to give you anything that they can than there would be knowing that the parents are just withholding it because they are mean and cruel.
    It’s people like that who should never even be allowed to have children in the first place.

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