During the study, the researchers analysed the data collected from 841 children in 425 households in the 1999-2002 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey
They found that the mother's stress might contribute to her young children being overweight in low-income households with sufficient food.
The study showed that households with no maternal stress, low-income children in food secure households had a 33.0 percent probability of being overweight, while those in food insecure households had a 34.8 percent probability.
As maternal stress levels increased, the probability of becoming overweight increased in children from food secure households, but decreased among those in food insecure households.
The children in food-secure households had a 43.7 percent greater probability of being overweight or obese when compared with children in food insecure households.
"We were not able to observe what people are eating in these data. That's definitely part of future work," said Steve Garasky, a professor of human development and family studies.
"But at this point we have to conclude that in stressful environments, children in households with adequate food -- maybe it is 'comfort food,' or maybe it's just larger quantities of more traditional food -- are possibly acting on the desire to eat more, and maybe even eat differently, than those from food insecure households," he added.
"If you see the developmental differences in a 6-year-old vs. a 16-year-old, the 6-year-old relies more on the food choices in the households, while the 16-year-old spends more time away from home and has a network of friends or lunch plans at schools where they have more food options," said Brenda Lohman, an assistant professor of human development and family studies.
"It could also be that the adolescents are also able to cope with their mother's stress and handle it better through their support mechanisms -- siblings, friends, or teachers -- and the younger kids don't have those same networks, so they might internalise the mother's stressors more," she added.
"Recognizing the complexity of the issue allows us to recognize that we have more options to help children," said Garasky.
"If we can reduce mom's stress -- whether it be mental health or financial issues -- the direct effect on mom is helping her, and that's good. But we can also hope to see indirect effects on other household members and children. For example, their reduced probability of becoming obese is another benefit to helping mom," he added.