Depression, stress impact meal prep, UMN study shows

Researchers hope to use their findings to find ways to reduce childhood obesity.

Wesley Hortenbach

Stress and depression impact the food parents serve their families, according to a University of Minnesota study published Nov. 22.

Researchers set out to analyze the relationship between parents’ mood and meal prep — using an app to survey participants — in hopes of someday finding interventions to limit childhood obesity. 

“Stress and depression may impact parenting practices around food that can have implications for child eating behaviors and health outcomes,” said Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, professor and division head of Epidemiology and Community Health, who was part of the research team.

Lead author Jerica Berge, associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, worked with students and faculty from various departments to complete the study.

“We had sort of an interdisciplinary team, which was great because we could look at things from all different perspectives,” she said.

Participants used an app with push notifications that asked them brief survey questions about stress levels and, later, what food they served their children.

The researchers decided to use an app in the study because it’s easy for parents, and most people always have their phones with them, Berge said.

“To me, the coolest thing is the technology. We use technology to find out what’s going on, and now we want to intervene help parents make better choices,” Berge said.

Based on existing findings that parenting practices can contribute to obesity in children, Berge wanted to know why parents serve their kids processed foods.

“By backtracking and trying to predict the factors … then we can intervene on their stress because by the time the food is on the table, it’s too late,” Berge said.

The team hopes doctors will use these findings to discuss the impact of stress and depression on everyday food routines with their patients, according to the study.

Going forward, Berge and her team are launching a study using a similar app. This app will send text messages with encouragement or healthy meal suggestions to parents who identified themselves as feeling especially stressed or depressed earlier that day.

“Interventions need to go beyond educating families about healthy eating to help reduce stress,” Neumark-Sztainer said.