Background

Parental military deployment is linked to stress in the family system due to concerns about the deployed service member’s safety and increased responsibilities for those not deployed. Stress, in turn, can impact adolescent weight. Given the important role that stress plays in obesity, it is crucial to understand unique stressors to which vulnerable populations are exposed.

Methods

We studied 127 adolescent (14.5±1.6y) military dependents (55.9% female; 45.7% Non-Hispanic White, 18.9% Non-Hispanic Black, 22.8% Hispanic, 3.1% Other; BMIz=1.92±.40) prior to entry into an obesity prevention trial. Participants were at risk for adult obesity due to BMI %ile>85th and loss of control eating and/or elevated anxiety. A subset (n=71) of adolescents had body fat measured by air displacement plethysmography. Parents reported their own distress via the Parenting Stress Index and their deployment history. Deployments were dichotomized into 1) ever vs. never deployed and 2) ever vs. never deployed to a combat zone.

Results

70.1% of participants experienced ≥1 parental deployment. Regressions accounting for age, sex, and race/ethnicity revealed a significant interaction: in youth who ever had a parent deployed, parental distress was positively associated with BMIz (R2=.14, p=.03); this pattern was not observed in participants without a parent deployment. A similar non-significant pattern was observed for adiposity (R2=.19, p=.06). For those who had a parent deployed to a combat zone, parental distress was positively associated with adiposity (R2=.19, p=.04); this relationship was not observed among youth whose parent was not deployed to a combat zone. The combat/parental distress interaction was not significant for BMIz (R2=.13, p=.16).

Conclusions

The combination of deployment and parental distress may be associated with high BMIz and body fat among adolescent military dependents seeking prevention of adult obesity. Longitudinal data will allow for causal and more definitive conclusions.