Children’s psychosocial stress and emotional eating: A role for leptin?


Objective: Psychosocial stress can be a health threat by stimulating unhealthier eating behaviors. We aim to test the role of the hormone leptin in the association between stress and diet/emotional eating as detected in primary school children. Method: In a two-wave longitudinal study with 308 Belgian children (5-12y) in 2010-2012, the association of fasting serum leptin with reported stress (negative events and emotional problems), measured stress by salivary cortisol (overall cortisol output and awakening response), emotional eating and food consumption frequency was examined. Analyses were split by sex. Mediation and moderation by leptin change were tested. Results: One stress marker (overall cortisol output) was significantly correlated with high leptin levels, but only in girls and cross-sectionally. Only in boys, leptin was associated with low emotional eating. Leptin was not a significant predictor of unhealthy food consumption. Leptin change was not a mediator but an enhancing moderator in the link between stress (high cortisol output and emotional problems) and emotional eating in girls: high reports of emotional eating in 2012 were present in the case of combined high 2-year leptin increase and high stress at baseline. Discussion: Stress (represented by emotional problems and high daily cortisol) seems to lead to hyperleptinemia in girls; and the combination of high stress and hyperleptinemia might make girls more vulnerable to stress-induced eating. No functional data on leptin sensitivity were present, but results might suggest that stress induces lower sensitivity to the anorexigenic leptin activity.