Can an Unstable Childhood lead to Adult Obesity?

A lot of what goes on in childhood affects how we turn out as adults. A study carried out by researchers at Florida State University has discovered that people who experience unstable or unpredictable childhoods are at a greater risk of becoming obese as adults, than those raised in stable, structured environments. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that an unstable childhood, with exposure to events such as divorce between parents, crime, and frequent relocation, could lead to a lifestyle that promotes obesity.

For this study, the researchers used a well-established principle of the behavioral sciences called Life History Theory.

Life History Theory

Life History Theory has been used to predict a wide range of behaviors such as a person’s ability to parent and make financial decisions. However, the current research is the first time this approach has been used to study obesity. Life History Theory is an analytical framework, which proposes that the amount of stability a person has in childhood, predicts their future lifestyle and life choices. These are called “life history strategies”. There are two types of life history strategies – faster and slower.

Fast life history strategy

Unpredictable childhoods can cause a “fast life history strategy” for adults. Experiencing an unpredictable environment in childhood teaches people that it’s hard to plan for the future, inspiring them to live for the moment since they don’t know what’s coming next. These people often have children at an earlier age and spend money rather than save. They end up focusing on short-term rather than long-term goals and they seek immediate gratification. They eat what they can, and when they can, even if they are not hungry, because they don’t know when they will have their next meal. Such eating habits lead to obesity.

Slow life history strategy

Predictable childhoods tend to teach that planning for the future is good, and that mindset results in a “slow life history strategy”. As adults, these people form long-term goals and take decisions more carefully. They often have children at an older age, and they are more likely to invest in education and save money for retirement. Moreover, people with a slow life history strategy feel that the future is more stable, and they intuitively know where their next meal will come from. They are inclined to listen to their body and eat only when they need to.


People who had an unstable childhood tended to eat too much, while those who experienced a stable childhood did not. The research suggested that preventing obesity is not just about reducing stress, but also about creating structure and predictability for children. For example, have family meals at the same time each night or same bedtime rituals every day. Routines give children a sense of certainty and structure. This feeling of predictability creates a slower life history strategy in children, which may reduce the risk of obesity in adulthood.