Mothers’ own health influences obesity in children, study confirms

Moms, when it comes to your child’s weight, you matter. A new study in the British Medical Journal confirms this.

The study looked at more than 24,000 children of more than 16,000 nurses enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study II in the 1990s. The researchers specifically looked at children who were not obese before age 9 and where they were at age 14.

Children of mothers who lived a healthy lifestyle had a 75 per cent less chance of becoming overweight than the children whose mothers did not.
Children of mothers who lived a healthy lifestyle had a 75 per cent less chance of becoming overweight than the children whose mothers did not.  (Dreamstime)

What they found was that 5.3 per cent of those children became obese in those five years. The risk of becoming obese was lower in children whose mothers had a body mass index between 18.5 and 24.9, engaged in at least 150 minutes a week of moderate to vigorous physical activity, did not smoke and consumed alcohol in moderation.

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Here’s the big takeaway: Children of mothers who had those markers of health had a 75 per cent less chance of becoming overweight than the children whose mothers did not.

Those researchers found that it wasn’t just about the children’s healthy lifestyle, it was about the mothers’ as well.

Dr. Kelly Thorstad, a pediatrician at St. David’s Children’s Hospital and Lone Star Pediatrics, says that what this study shows is it’s not just about genetics. While genetics are a factor, it’s also about lifestyle and creating an environment of healthy habits.

“I think children learn what they live,” she says. “Having parents that have a healthy lifestyle, that have a healthy weight … it will be good for the family.”

Some of the things she recommends families start doing:

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  • Control how much TV kids and parents are watching, and no TV in the bedrooms.
  • Have family meal times together to share those healthy habits.
  • No sugary drinks — and that includes juice. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended last year that babies younger than 1 should not have juice and to severely limit it to about 1/2 or 1 cup a day for most other children depending on age. Sodas don’t have any nutritional value; skip them.
  • Avoid fried food. Instead of counting calories, worry about the amount of fat.
  • Focus on serving size. We have trouble remembering what a healthy serving is, especially at restaurants. “Look at your plate,” she says. “Cut everything in half, and that would be a normal serving size.”
  • Get good protein throughout the day, but especially at breakfast. Think boiled eggs, a protein bar without a lot of sugar, whole-grain cereal with milk or, better yet, yogurt with fruit and some whole-grain cereal on top.
  • Trade chips and cookies for fruits and vegetables as a snack after school and on the weekends.
  • Drink water.
  • Control what you bring into the house. If you don’t bring in junk food, it’s not available for eating, at least when they are at home.

Thorstad, of course, would like families to do all of these things, but if they can only do one thing, cutting out sugary drinks would be her choice.

Thorstad often has to have conversations with parents when their children’s weight is not at a healthy level. She says she always asks them if it would be OK to talk about weight.

She talks about their health more than their weight. It’s about not getting diabetes or having heart problems later.

She encourages them to make small changes like going for a walk at night as a family. She also encourages parents to not single out the kid who is obese from the rest of the family.

“For children to make big changes, it’s a family thing,” she says. “It’s not just the mother’s healthy lifestyle, it’s everyone in the family.”

And remember, let’s not blame the mother, or the mother’s mother, or her mother before her.

“If you come from a family that everybody has been obese for generations, you don’t have to accept that,” she says.