Examining Obesity in Low-Income Teens

Low-income teenagers face a high risk of becoming obese. And they are vulnerable to stress-induced eating, living in neighborhoods where it may be unsafe to go outside or in families where food and money are scarce.

In a study funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), psychologist Amy Sato recruits subjects from the community, including area schools and social service agencies, and examine how stress affects the risk for obesity in low-income adolescents.

What she learns could be used in developing interventions to stop a pattern of obesity that carries over into adulthood and is a growing public health problem.

Sato, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Kent State, has conducted preliminary studies showing that obese teens show greater cortisol activity when faced with stress than their lean counterparts. Cortisol, the stress hormone released by the adrenal glands as part of the fight-or-flight response, has been linked in adults to higher food intake and weight gain. But researchers have not yet studied how low-income youth are affected by cortisol and stress-induced emotional eating, she said.


Now she is looking at whether obese low-income adolescents differ from lean low-income teens in cortisol reactivity and eating in response to stress. Identifying the physiological and behavioral patterns that lead to obesity is a first step toward developing targeted strategies to reduce stress and weight gain.

As a clinical pediatric psychologist who has taught stress management techniques to teens, she has found that many of them eat in response to stress without even realizing it.

“You can help make them aware of this – to see the connection between eating and stress,” she said.

She is using a standardized laboratory stress test that asks teens to engage in tasks such as giving a speech in front of an audience or subtracting numbers quickly without mistakes. Saliva samples are taken to measure their cortisol levels.

They also self-report on their stress levels outside the lab at various times. They are asked about arguments with their friends, the daily hassles they face, and their worries about not having enough money. Their parents are asked about the health habits of the family, their perceptions of stress and food insecurity.


The study is part of Sato’s ongoing interest in health disparities. While about 20.5 percent of U.S. adolescents (12-19 years) are obese, rates of obesity are higher among Hispanic youths (22.6 percent) and blacks (22.1 percent) and lower among non-Hispanic whites (19.6 percent) and Asians (11.1 percent). Overall, 34.5 percent of U.S. adolescents are either obese or overweight.

She studies adolescents in the 11- to 17-years-of-age range, a particularly critical period. Obese adolescents are more likely to be obese adults, she noted. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than one third of adults in the U.S. are obese. Obese individuals are more likely to suffer from diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular and other health problems.

“To me it’s motivating to do this study because there are so many long-term effects of obesity,” she said. “There is a lot of benefit to understanding what happens in childhood.”