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Stress-related eating, obesity and associated behavioural traits in adolescents: a prospective population-based cohort study

Anne Jääskeläinen1*, Nina Nevanperä2, Jouko Remes2, Fanni Rahkonen2, Marjo-Riitta Järvelin34567 and Jaana Laitinen2

Author Affiliations

1 Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, P.O. Box 310, FI-70101 Kuopio, Finland

2 Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, Oulu, Finland

3 Biocenter Oulu, University of Oulu, Oulu, Finland

4 Institute of Health Sciences, University of Oulu, Oulu, Finland

5 National Institute for Health and Welfare, Oulu, Finland

6 Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, MRC Health Protection Agency Centre for Environment and Health, School of Public Health, Imperial College London, London, UK

7 Unit of Primary Care, Oulu University Hospital, Oulu, Finland

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BMC Public Health 2014, 14:321  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-14-321

Published: 7 April 2014



Stress-related eating is associated with unhealthy eating and drinking habits and an increased risk of obesity among adults, but less is known about factors related to stress-driven eating behaviour among children and adolescents. We studied the prevalence of stress-related eating and its association with overweight, obesity, abdominal obesity, dietary and other health behaviours at the age of 16. Furthermore, we examined whether stress-related eating is predicted by early-life factors including birth size and maternal gestational health.


The study population comprised 3598 girls and 3347 boys from the Northern Finland Birth Cohort 1986 (NFBC1986). Followed up since their antenatal period, adolescents underwent a clinical examination, and their stress-related eating behaviour, dietary habits and other health behaviours were assessed using a postal questionnaire. We examined associations using cross-tabulations followed by latent class analysis and logistic regression to profile the adolescents and explain the risk of obesity with behavioural traits.


Stress-related eating behaviour was more common among girls (43%) than among boys (15%). Compared with non-stress-driven eaters, stress-driven eaters had a higher prevalence of overweight, obesity and abdominal obesity. We found no significant associations between stress-eating and early-life factors. Among girls, tobacco use, shorter sleep, infrequent family meals and frequent consumption of chocolate, sweets, light sodas and alcohol were more prevalent among stress-driven eaters. Among boys, the proportions of those with frequent consumption of sausages, chocolate, sweets, hamburgers and pizza were greater among stress-driven eaters. For both genders, the proportions of those bingeing and using heavy exercise and strict diet for weight control were higher among stress-eaters. Besides a ‘healthy lifestyle’ cluster, latent class analysis revealed two other patterns (‘adverse habits’, ‘unbalanced weight control’) that significantly explained the risk of overweight among boys and girls.


Stress-related eating is highly prevalent among 16-year-old girls and is associated with obesity as well as adverse dietary and other health behaviours among both genders, but intrauterine conditions are seemingly uninvolved. In terms of obesity prevention and future health, adolescents who use eating as a passive way of coping could benefit from learning healthier strategies for stress and weight management.

Adolescent; Body mass index; Cohort studies; Diet; Drinking behaviour; Health behaviour; Latent class analysis; Obesity; Psychological stress