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Guelph Family Health Study leading the charge in researching how stress impacts family health-Part 1

September 14, 2020

Author: Candace Aqui, MPH, RD, Program and Policy Consultant at Nutrition Connections

In this 4-part blog series, Nutrition Connections is featuring the important and timely research findings from the Guelph Family Health Study (GFHS), a long-term study following families over many years to learn new ways to help families set healthy routines for eating, activity, sleep and screen time at home.  The series will feature research in the areas of the impact of COVID-19 on families, food waste, stress and body fat, and stress and screen time.

The impact of stress on our health has never been more relevant than right now. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all of us in different ways, however, we could all agree that the major disruption to our daily lives and not knowing what’s coming next, is extremely stressful.

The human body is designed to deal with short bouts of physical, mental and emotional stress, however, continuous stress can overwhelm our body’s ability to deal with and overcome challenging situations. Research in this area has demonstrated that chronic stress may increase the risk for developing obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases.1-3 The Guelph Family Health Study is contributing to this body of evidence in a ground-breaking study looking specifically at how mothers and fathers experience stress and the impact it has on body fat, also known as adiposity.4

Three types of stress were under investigation: general life stress, parenting distress, and overall household chaos. The research findings from this study show that stress is associated with adiposity (e.g. the higher the measure of stress, the higher the measure of adiposity) even when gender, age, household income level and family size are taken into account. Interestingly, there was no significant differences between mothers and fathers. And since the limited number of studies that look at family-based stress have focused on women, this study highlights that fathers’ experience of stress is also an important consideration for designing interventions and solutions that address the family as a unit. The study findings may sound intuitive, but they are a reminder that parental health is a critical part of a family’s overall health.

This study also uses measures of adiposity in addition to BMI, such as percent fat mass and waist circumference.4 Using a comprehensive approach that doesn’t rely solely on BMI demonstrates that other measures of adiposity are feasible in the research setting. While this is the first study of this kind in Canada, the authors point out that their results may not apply to different groups of Canadians, such as visible minorities and low-income families. This is important to note as families negatively impacted by the social determinants of health may have other stressors in addition to general and family-based stress.

Nutrition Connections has created plain-language summaries of this research for health professionals (on the left), and for the general public (on the right). The summaries include resources for families to help manage their stress. Click on the images above to view in greater detail and please take a moment to complete our popup feedback survey.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where we’ll showcase the GFHS Research Team’s work on stress and screen time.


1. Goldman-Mellor S, Brydon L, Steptoe A. Psychological distress and circulating inflammatory markers in healthy young adults. Psychol Med. 2010;40:2079–87.

2.Björntorp P. Do stress reactions cause abdominal obesity and comorbidities? Obes Rev. 2001;2:73–86.

3.Bjorntorp P, Rosmond R. The metabolic syndrome – a neuroendocrine disorder? Br J Nutr. 2000;83:49–57.

4. Hruska V, Ambrose T, Darlington G, Ma DWL, Haines J, Buchholz AC. Stress is Associated with Adiposity in Parents of Young Children. Obesity. 2020;28(3):655–9.


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