A study at Temple University found that kids who are neglected are more likely to be obese. Abuse or maltreatment, on the other hand, didn't seem to affect their weight.
Temple's Robert Whitaker looked at data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study of nearly 5,000 children. At age three, children'sheight and weight were measured, while mothers answered a questionnaire about three types of child maltreatment in the prior year: neglect (such as not providing proper supervision for the child), corporal punishment (such as spanking the child on the bottom with a bare hand) and psychological aggression (such as threatening to spank the child but not actually doing it).
According to the article,
Eighteen percent of the children were obese, and the prevalence of any episode of neglect, corporal punishment or psychological aggression was 11 percent, 84 percent and 93 percent, respectively.
The odds of obesity were 50 percent greater in children who had experienced neglect, after controlling for the income and number of children in the household, the mothers' race/ethnicity, education, marital status, body mass index, prenatal smoking and age, and the children's sex and birth weight.
On the other hand, there was no correlation between corporal punishment or psychological aggression and overweight.
This makes sense if you look at overeating as a way to compensate for oxytocin deprivation. We tend to see overeating as a reaction to stress, which it is. But the stress of isolation is the lack of the ability to connect in an oxytocin-producing interaction with another person. (Although in prairie voles, isolated animals actually produce more oxytocin; researchers at University of Illinois who did these experiments think this oxytocin production drives the animal to try harder to connect. See The Amazing Vagus Nerve and The Sex/Food/Love Connection.
Eating -- or rather digesting food, especially fatty food -- sends signals from the gut to the brain via the vagus nerve. Those signals cause the hypothalamus to release oxytocin, which travels to the gut and creates the sensation of satiety.
It seems very likely that this oxytocin release also tweaks the neurons in the brain that create the pleasure in social interactions. So, it makes perfect sense that kids who are lonely for their mothers -- or for anyone to pay attention to them -- could use eating to take the place of social relationship.