Parents play a major role in determining the health of their children. How much their individual education and exercise habits influence their children’s weight was recently examined in a new study.
Children’s growth is dependent on family environment. What parents practice and observe directly impact their children’s conceptions of lifestyle. These choices can influence children’s weight and exercise habits. As the prevalence of obesity rises in children, looking at how parents and home environments affect body mass index (BMI) is vital for novel interventions.
Obesity arises from an imbalance between energy consumption and energy output. While genetic and environmental factors can increase the risk of obesity, lifestyle also matters. Physical activity, diet, low socioeconomic status, and exposure to unbalanced eating habits influence BMI. This measure of height-to-weight ratio determines whether a child is classified as a healthy weight, overweight, or obese.
Academics from the HUNT Research Centre in Norway sought to better understand how different lifestyle changes and education between fathers and mothers influence a child’s BMI. At the heart of this question is the notion that behaviours linked to obesity are easily transferred from parent to child. These behaviours ultimately influence BMI.
They examined data from a total of 4424 children and parents from the Nord-Trondelag Health Study. Over the span of 11 years, surveys and body measurements were obtained to track changes in weight and physical activity. The researchers also found data on the parents’ SES, which helped categorize them based on education level. They published their results in BMJ Open.
Mothers play a significant role in children’s weight
The results showed that mothers, not fathers, play a significant role in their children’s BMI. If a mother becomes physically active and loses two to six kilograms, BMI drops in their offspring. When a father loses this amount of weight, their children show no distinctive change. Conversely, if a mother becomes less active over time, the BMI value of their children rises. Again, less active fathers did not have this impact.
Education and children’s BMI are seemingly inversely related. This means that the higher the education of parents, the lower the BMI of their offspring. The less education parents have, the more likely it is that they have children with high BMI measurements. Weight loss in mothers with high education showed the greatest BMI reduction in children.
Traditional maternal roles as per the nuclear family may explain these findings. Mothers, though largely more independent and involved in the workforce than decades ago, are still considered the primary caregivers to children. Activity planning and making food choices often falls on the mother, though this was not assessed in this study. As traditional parental gender roles evolve, each parent’s influence on their child’s BMI may change.
Study paves way for strategies to combat obesity in children
The scope of this study limits how broadly the findings can be applied. Diet is a major factor in determining BMI, yet the researchers could not obtain suitable nutritional data to include it in this study. Plus, physical activity here was defined as leisure time exercise and did not account for work-related activity.
Nevertheless, this study provides further understanding of what influences obesity in children. Knowing how parents, and which parent, affect their child’s weight paves the way to strategies to combat obesity.
Written by Amrita Jaiprakash, MSc
Reference: Naess et al. Implications of parental lifestyle changes and education level on adolescent offspring weight: a population based cohort study – The HUNT Study, Norway. BMJ Open. 2018. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2018-023406