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Behavioral Studies Look at Link Between Parenting and Child Obesity Rates

The link between obesity and chronic disease garners huge attention in the media. We know the numbers. They’re staggering. By the accepted definition, body mass index (BMI) higher than 30, one in three adults is obese. The same holds true for children and adolescents, with some ethnic populations experiencing even higher rates.

As a society, we tend to oversimplify the solutions. We think solving this epidemic merely means individuals must take responsibility for their health – eat right, exercise, get enough sleep. Period. The truth is much more complicated.

Many factors – some not well understood – influence people’s ability to maintain a healthy weight. Two recent studies support the importance of parental behavior, particularly early in children’s lives, in establishing good eating and physical activity habits that carry through to adulthood.

Cause and effect

We know the impact of obesity on health: obesity increases the risk of chronic health issues such as diabetes, asthma, cardiovascular diseases and cancer. It also contributes to joint health problems like arthritis. Those are the physical tolls.

Then there are the emotional issues associated with the stigma society continues to place on people who struggle with their weight. Add bullying, discrimination, loss of opportunity to the list of physical problems. Emotional challenges, research indicates, can lead to overweight children struggling in school.

For children, how their parents behave creates additional risk factors. Children make few of their own decisions at a stage in their development when lifelong patterns begin to emerge.

Research published last year in the Journal of Behavioral and Developmental Pediatrics found parents’ role-modeling behavior — abstaining from junk good, eating more fruits and vegetables, getting more exercise – was crucial in fostering those same habits in their kids.

And a study from the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics showed a father’s BMI, diet and level of exercise were accurate predictors of those same traits in their children.

These recent studies support conclusions that researchers were making a decade ago. A Stanford study from 2004, among other findings, observed parents’ tendency to overlook their children’s unhealthy habits and weight. Not surprisingly many of those parents had their own issues with weight control.

We’ve known for at least 20 years in addition to parental behavior, heredity plays a major role. People’s bodies metabolically store and process fat differently. This is due to an inherited set of traits over which we have no control. For some people, maintaining a healthy weight is a formidable, continuous, lifelong challenge for which they didn’t sign up.

Sounds cynical, but the adage: “Choose your parents well” holds particularly true for maintaining a healthy weight.

It’s important we acknowledge this health crisis didn’t happen overnight. Solving it will take time, resources and along the way, a lot more empathy and acceptance, particularly when we’re talking about the most emotionally vulnerable among us – our children.

Parents, schools, health care organizations, government agencies, private industry, media and perhaps most importantly each of us as individuals play an important role in modeling positive, healthful behavior and providing the emotional support to help succeeding generations turn this frightening trend around.

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