The study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that people who had this unpredictable childhood tended to overeat, unlike those who had a stable childhood.
“Experiencing an unpredictable environment in childhood sensitizes people to the idea that it’s difficult to plan for the future because if you don’t know what’s around the next corner, you live for the now,” explains study author Jon Maner. “They end up focusing on short-term rather than long-term goals and they’re not good at delaying gratification.”
Those with unpredictable childhoods often have a ‘fast-life-history’ strategy – ie, they spend money rather than save and have kids younger. This is in contrast to predictable childhoods, which tend to teach the importance of planning for the future. Ie, they might have long-term goals, have children later and invest in education. This is called a ‘slow-life-history’ strategy.
The reason this affects our eating habits is all to do with mindset. “If you don’t know where the next meal is coming from, it would make sense to eat what you can now,” says Maner. “But people with a slow-life-history strategy feel the future is more certain, and they intuitively know where their next meal will come from. They are inclined to listen to their body and eat based on their current needs.”
One of the most important findings from this study is that organization and planning is key when it comes to preventing obesity – especially if you have kids. “Our research suggests it’s not just about reducing stress, it’s more about creating structure and predictability for children,” Maner said. “For example, have family meals at the same time each night or bedtime rituals every day. Routines teach children to have expectations that, when met, result in a sense of certainty and structure. Theoretically, that feeling of predictability instills a slower-life-history strategy, which may reduce obesity in adulthood.”