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Family Life Project Obesity Grant

Self-regulation failure has been implicated in the development of obesity in children. Little is known, however, about the extent to which children’s stress responses (a marker for self-regulation) in infancy and early childhood predict body mass index trajectories, nor do we fully understand the ways in which children’s biobehavioral responses to stress, including eating in response to stress, influence adverse weight outcomes. The mechanisms by which children’s biological stress responses and behavioral self-regulation are linked to obesity are largely unknown; we propose that dysregulated eating is one key mechanism.

The current study takes an integrated, biopsychosocial, developmental approach to examining behavioral, biological, and eating regulation as key biobehavioral underpinnings of obesity in rural children. Using data collected from infancy (6 months) through childhood (grade 5) as a part of the ongoing Family Life Project, we will examine biobehavioral mechanisms involved in the development of obesity in young children. The Family Life Project is a multi-site, longitudinal study which examines distal and proximal influences on rural children’s development. Data were collected on ~1300 infants and their caregivers at study entry, and more than 1,000 children have been followed through grade 4. In addition to measures on children’s stress response, behavioral self-regulation, and relative weight (body mass index; BMI), a number of parental and family environmental factors have been collected over the duration of the study.

Using a planned missingness and experimental design, we propose to collect new information from more than 600 families on 11- to 13-year-old children’s biobehavioral and eating regulation, and their relations with obesity. The experimental approach will provide a unique opportunity to examine the causal effects of stress on eating behavior and self-regulation under standardized conditions. We will also examine the influence of early exposure to family adversity (e.g., harsh parenting and chaos in the home) on children’s developing regulatory capacity, and the trajectory of BMI from age 24 mos to ~13yrs. In addition, we will examine the extent to which individual characteristics (e.g., race, gender) and biobehavioral predisposition to obesity (maternal weight status and stress regulation) moderate these relations. While several studies have outlined various behavioral and environmental influences on children's development of obesity, the current study will objectively measure children’s capacity to self-regulate in several domains of development, and will examine the extent to which family and household factors contribute to self-regulatory capacity, and its potential influence on children’s BMI trajectory and obesity development from early childhood to adolescence.


Funding Agency:  

Pennsylvania State University

Funding Period:  

08/01/2015 to 06/30/2020

Award Amount:  



Margaret M. Swingler, Research Scientist