“Childhood obesity” is regularly in the headlines – in fact it is often referred to as an “epidemic.” Last year Michelle Obama launched a special initiative to fight it and just last month you may recall the uproar surrounding a lunchroom worker who forced an elementary student to eat the school lunch rather than the supposedly “not nutritious” sack lunch that had been prepared by the child’s mother. Eat less, exercise more – and watch the types of food that are consumed. Seems so simple, yet obesity continues to spiral out-of-control. Could it be that a big part of the solution to this “epidemic” lies somewhere else?
Researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles now report that “family structure [is] significantly associated with the obesity rate.” The researchers looked at children in kindergarten, 3rd grade and 5th grade. They found that children from single-mother families had higher rates of obesity than children from two-parent family – this was particularly evident in fifth grade students.
In an interesting sibling twist, researchers concluded from their analysis that there is “strong evidence that children who lived with a single mother and especially children who had no sibling were at the greatest risk for childhood obesity.” The other not-so-surprising high-risk factor for childhood obesity was the absence of close ties to the child’s father.
The website of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry gives a long list of possible causes of childhood obesity: poor eating habits, overeating or binging, lack of exercise, family history of obesity, medical illnesses, low self-esteem, depression, family and peer problems and they briefly mention “stressful events or changes” and in parenthesis “separations, divorce, moves, deaths, abuse.” Family disintegration –that can bring about most of the things on the list – only gets a brief nod.
Seems to me that if we really want to address the obesity “epidemic,” we need to take a long-hard-look at family breakdown and out-of-wedlock child bearing. But I suspect that we’ll continue to hear and see things like Michelle Obama and her hula hoops and more school-lunch Nazis trying to dictate what our children can eat, while one of the root causes of childhood obesity is virtually ignored.Alex Y. Chen and Jose J. Escarce, “Family Structure and Childhood Obesity, Early Childhood Longitudinal Study – Kindergarten Cohort,” Prevent Chronic Disease 7.3 (May 2010): A50.
Chart showing increase in childhood obesity.
SOURCE: CDC/NCHS, NHES and NHANES.