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 

The Untold Story behind the Childhood Obesity Epidemic


Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King


Few public-health issues have received more attention in recent years than that of childhood obesity. And because of the way childhood obesity predicts adult diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems, this attention is well warranted. However, a closer look at the matter reveals that the commentators bewailing the upsurge in childhood obesity have been keeping strangely quiet about an important backstory: namely, the role of maternal employment in incubating the problem.

The politically uncomfortable backstory does emerge, however, in a review of the relevant research published recently by public-health scholars at the University of Aberdeen, the University of Strathclyde, and the University of Glasgow. As the scholars analyze the latest studies in the United Kingdom and the United States on overweight and obese children, they recognize that certain patterns of home life appear to keep children in healthy weight ranges and that other patterns seem to push children toward dangerously excessive weight.

If public-health officials are trying to reverse the disturbing trends in child weight, perhaps they should join the Scottish scholars in looking very closely at a recent American study concluding that “the number of family meals eaten per week was inversely associated with overweight in the children up to age 7 years.” Evidently, the training table most likely to keep children at a healthy weight is the table where the entire family gathers at mealtime.

Of course, family meals become much harder to arrange as soon as Mom takes employment outside of the home. So it should hardly be surprising that the Scottish researchers uncover evidence from both the United States and the United Kingdom indicating that “the children of mothers who worked more hours per week were more likely to be overweight, particularly among mothers of higher socioeconomic status.”

Unfortunately, the pressures of political correctness have made it difficult to look at some truths squarely and honestly. It is therefore not entirely surprising that the Scottish researchers conclude their study by averting their eyes from the family patterns that put children at risk of being overweight while focusing on possibilities for “interventions on the food environment of young children” that would result in “reducing promotion of high-fat, high-sugar foods, making smaller portion sizes available and providing alternatives to sugar-sweetened soft drinks.”

In the current academic environment, it would take rare intellectual courage to challenge the cultural patterns that have taken mothers out of the home, sharply reducing the likelihood of healthy family meals while sharply increasing the likelihood of fat-laden fast-food meals.

(George Osei-Assibey et al., “The Influence of the Food Environment on Overweight and Obesity in Young Children: A Systematic Review,” BMJ Open 2.6 [2012]: e001538. Web.)

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