The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Fat Chance

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Acutely aware of all the medical consequences it portends, public-health officials are deeply distressed by the surging rates of child obesity they have witnessed in the United States in recent years. Themselves keenly disturbed by trends putting “children at a higher risk for obesity and associated weight problems than they ever have been before,” medical authorities at Wake Forest University try to explain this “profoundly complex biopsychosocial issue.” They find that the requisite “ecological approach to understanding obesity” leads inevitably to questions about family life.

“It is intuitive,” the Wake Forest scholars remark,

that changes in family structure affect nutrition and physical activity habits of families. Family meals, fast food, early childhood feeding practices, sleep routines, parenting style, media use, family-based physical activity, adult obesity levels, socio-economic status, and interaction with health services are key factors associated with childhood obesity, and are most likely moderated by changes in the family.

These changes, the researchers point out, have been dramatic during the decades when the epidemic of child obesity has unfolded: whereas 85 percent of children lived with two married parents in 1970, by 2010 only 66 percent of children did. Not surprisingly, the percentage of children living with a single mother climbed from 11 percent to 23 percent during the same decades. Connecting the dots, the researchers remark that “children from mother-only households are at substantially increased risk for living in poverty, a major risk factor for childhood obesity and poor health outcomes.” Though they seem reluctant to offend against feminist orthodoxy by criticizing maternal employment, the researchers do dare note that child obesity skyrocketed during a time when Americans witnessed “a substantial growth in women’s labor force participation, increasing from 43% in 1970 to 66% by 2009.”

No doubt conscious of the provocative implications of their analysis, the researchers retreat into an official agnosticism: “there is little direct evidence linking these changes in the family to obesity risk in children” (emphasis added). But the indirect evidence of linkage is compelling. After all, “home and social environments, parenting styles, and family feeding practices are the primary influences on early childhood nutrition behaviors.” What is more, the researchers recognize the clear implications in numbers showing that even in the age of McDonald’s and Taco Bell, about two-thirds of all of the meals American children eat still come from home. The researchers can hardly deny that “the home environment and family feeding behaviors are crucial components in the development of childhood nutritional habits, and have an undeniable influence on childhood weight status.”

Americans can expect to see public-health officials advance a variety of measures for combating child obesity. But they can also expect these measures to be exercises in futility without a renewal in family life.

(Joseph A. Skelton et al., “Etiologies of Obesity in Children: Nature and Nurture,” Pediatric Clinics of North America 58.6 [2011]: 1,333-1,354.)