Maia Hyary, PhD student

Maia Hyary examines the connections between food insecurity, obesity and stress for mothers and their children 

Maia Hyary came to the Heller School with an already robust interest in obesity research. She had worked for two years at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut, and was looking to expand her research skills. 

“As I started my coursework at Heller, I conducted a review of the literature on the paradoxical relationship between food insecurity and obesity,” she said. Previous research had found a strong association between food insecurity and obesity in women, particularly mothers, but not among men or children. Her dissertation examines why the coexistence of food insecurity and obesity is more prevalent among mothers.

“My dissertation hypothesizes that mothers experience prolonged stress in food insecure households because as primary caregivers and food preparers, they disproportionately bear the burden of providing food for their families. This chronic stress may be what’s driving the positive relationship between food insecurity and obesity among women,” says Hyary.

As she explains, the body’s biological response to chronic stress is to produce cortisol. Heightened cortisol levels contribute to unhealthy food cravings, as well as increased body fat storage and weight gain. 

Hyary first became interested in the topic while reading qualitative studies. “In interviews, food insecure mothers discuss the strain of living with scarce resources and the constant threat of needing to adopt coping strategies and make trade-offs in order to feed their families. Women also reported making sacrifices such as eating the cheaper, calorie-dense and nutritionally poor foods in order to serve healthy foods to their children. The interviews also revealed that mothers in food insecure households often feel socially isolated and depressed due to the shame of not being able to feed their children.

“These interviews highlight the unique context of stress experienced by mothers in food insecure households,” says Hyary. Although the qualitative studies provide important insights into food insecure households, these studies are often conducted with small, non-representative samples. Hyary’s dissertation will use nationally representative data and apply quantitative methods.

In addition to studying how maternal stress contributes to obesity among food insecure mothers. Hyary will also examine how maternal stress affects the intergenerational transmission of food insecurity for their children.

When asked about the policy implications of her dissertation research, Hyary said  she hopes her research will contribute to evidence for policies and programs tailored to the needs of women with children. “The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is a fantastic program that effectively supports women and children at nutritional risk. However, WIC is only eligible for women with children up to age five. The expansion of WIC eligibility to women with children up to age 18 is one example of how policy could help to mitigate maternal stress surrounding food and in turn improve diet outcomes for women and their children.”