Prior research has shown that adults who were raised in a low socioeconomic status (SES) environment are more likely to desire energy-dense foods. Research has also shown a positive correlation between current stress levels and the desire for energy-dense foods. We hypothesized that stress and trait appetite
mediate the relationship between childhood SES and the desire for low and high-energy-dense foods. In this study, 311 adults participated in an online experiment in which they were shown images of five food items from each of the six major food categories (vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, meat/poultry, and sweets) and rated how desirable each food item is. Next, we asked a series of questions that identified the participant’s sex, early childhood socioeconomic conditions, and current stress level. We also identified whether the participants had a trait or state eating personality. A path analysis was used to confirm the hypothesis that stress plays a mediating role between SES and food preference, and that an orderly relationship exists between these variables. The results show the hypothesis was supported and that the results were statistically significant. Specifically, the results show that the desire for low and high-energy-dense foods is indirectly influenced by one’s early childhood environment, and that food desirability is mediated by both stress and trait appetite. In addition, this analysis showed that in some situations, stress can both increase and decrease the desire for high-energy-dense foods. These findings also contribute to our understanding of how environmental conditions (safe and harsh environments) affect appetite and the desire for low and high-energy-dense foods. It also provided a deeper understanding of how these food choices can be adaptive under different ecological conditions.
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