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Do Kids Make You Fat?

Do kids make parents fat?Moms of young kids weigh more than childless women, says a new study in the journal Pediatrics. Perhaps you’ve noticed this yourself in your own anecdotal studies on the playground? It’s not earth-shattering news. What is new here are some theories about what might be causing these weight differences between mothers and childless women. When we talk about mothers’ bodies,  it’s often about how hard it is to lose the leftover baby weight. But it turns out those lingering pregnancy pounds may not be the only factor. According to this study, mothers of young children consume over 300 calories a day more than their peers who don’t have kids, and more empty ones. They’re also less likely to exercise regularly. This last part was true for both mothers and fathers.

Here’s how moms stacked up:

Mothers:

Ate more fatty foods than childless women

Drank more sugary drinks: 7 per week, compared to 4 per week for childless women

Average intake for a mother of a young child: 2,360 calories daily.

Average intake for a childless woman: 1,992 calories daily.

Average exercise per week for a mother: Around two hours.

Average exercise per week for a childless woman: Around 3 hours.

Average Body Mass Index of mothers: 27

Average Body Mass Index of childless women: 25

Fathers had a similar caloric intake whether or not they had children. But childless men exercised significantly more: 7 hours per week compared to 5 for fathers. The study, published today in the journal Pediatrics, followed 1500 parents, culled from an original cohort of 4000 Minneapolis area students who were studied in their teens. This subgroup responded to follow-up questionnaires tracking diet and exercise habits.

When I first read this headline I wondered whether it might also be a function of age. Sometimes people slack off on the activity level as they get older. But it seems like these were largely young parents: the average age of study participants was 25.

There are some mitigating factors here which may affect the reliability of the results. Children’s ages were not tracked, so we don’t know whether we’re talking about mothers of newborns or three year olds. Thus things like postpartum weight loss and breastfeeding caloric intake aren’t part of the story. There are also some demographic variations between the two groups.The parent population had a lower average income than the non-parent group, for example. Lower incomes have been shown to correlate with less healthy diets in previous studies.

It’s hard to know, really, whether this study reflects the direct impact of parenthood, or other circumstances in these young parents’ lives. But the study does have important implications for parents. One of the primary deductions made from these findings is that mothers put their children’s needs first and their own health second. Any mother I know who doesn’t do this seems to do it only with mammoth effort, and substantial support from her partner or other caregivers.  Mothers who prioritize their own fitness are sometimes subject to judgment, called selfish or even vain for the focus on their own bodies. When fitness is worked into a mother’s schedule, it’s often seen not as a necessity, but as a gift: “me” time, as if an hour on the treadmill at the gym were the equivalent of an undisturbed bubble bath or an hour alone with a good book.

The authors of the study stressed the importance of this period in a woman’s life for instilling healthy eating and activity habits. This is crucial not just for the mother, but for her children.   Especially because of everything we know about how a parent’s behavior affects a child’s relationship to food and exercise.  Another recent study in Pediatrics highlighted the importance of a parent’s role in preventing childhood obesity. If we want diet and exercise habits to improve, we need to stop seeing mothers’ health as secondary, because it may just be the key to healthier kids and a healthier future.

Read more about the study here.

photo: colros/flickr

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