Stress is leading to poorer diets among parents but not necessarily for their children, according to a new University of Guelph study.

Published recently in Nutrients, the study is one of the first to examine family-based stress and how it affects the diets of parents and their preschool children.

It comes at a time when many families are under more stress than usual because of the pandemic, which may be worsening household tension and chaos and leading to stress-eating.

“People think of mental health and physical health as separate, but we know that stress affects our behaviours and leads to stress-eating in which we crave fatty or sugary foods,” said Valerie Hruska, a PhD candidate in the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences (HHNS). “Not very many people stress-eat salad.”

Valerie Hruska

Led by Hruska, the study involved surveying participants with the Guelph Family Health Study (GFHS), a long-term project co-directed by Dr. Jess Haines, a professor in the Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition, and HHNS professor Dr. David Ma that aims to develop evidence for creating health strategies for families with children under age six.

“We wanted to better understand how stress affects families because we know young children are in a critical window of development during which their eating patterns may be solidified into trends that persist to adulthood,” said Haines, a co-author of the study.

The participants were asked to report their own and their children’s diets. The foods were then assessed based on the Dietary Inflammatory Index, created by Connecting Health Innovations LLC. Foods that score high on the index promote inflammation and tend to be calorie-dense and nutrient-poor.

“Because ‘stress’ can be an ambiguous term, we asked participants about four kinds: personal stress; stress from being a parent; stress from living in a chaotic home; and stress from a dysfunctional family that doesn’t get along,” said Hruska.

Though the four types can often overlap, the researchers found interesting differences.

Parents who said they lived in chaotic homes or with dysfunctional families reported they ate a more pro-inflammatory diet than did parents living in better-functioning families and homes.

Prof. Jess Haines

The researchers found no link between personal stress or parental stress and poor diets.

One of the most surprising findings was that even when parents reported high levels of any form of stress, there was no link with poor diets among their preschool children.

Hruska said she and her team expected the stress-eating habits of parents would have a trickle-down effect on their kids’ diets.

“But we didn’t find that link,” Hruska said. “There may be many reasons for that. It may be that other health behaviours are affected when parents are stressed, such as increased screen time or less exercise time. Or it may be that even stressed parents ensure that their children eat well.”

While many parents are undergoing worsened stress because of the pandemic, family stress does not always mean families eat poorly, Hruska said.

She points to previous GFHS research that showed many families have found silver linings during the pandemic, including more time to cook and eat together as a family and more opportunities for children to take part in meal prep.

“We have all gotten a deep dive into family chaos throughout this pandemic,” said Haines, “but many of these more healthful habits may persist. We will look forward to exploring this with our ongoing data in the Guelph Family Health Study.”


Dr. Jess Haines

Valerie Hruska