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 

Break Apart the Family, Break Out the Tastykakes

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

The media are awash in editorials lamenting the epidemic of obesity among the young people and calling for government action to combat the problem. Somehow, the editorialists never get around to tracing childhood obesity back to its origins in epidemic rates of family failure. At last, scholars at Robert Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work have completed that investigative work.

Combing through health and nutrition data collected from a nationally representative sample of 219 households with single parents and 780 dual-parent households, the Stempel scholars trace a clear linkage between childhood obesity and adverse family background. The researchers note that “the proportion of overweight children from single-parent households (41%) was more than children from dual parent households (31%),” and find that this imbalance grows even more pronounced when the focus shifts to the very serious kind of overweight status referred to as obesity. The researchers calculate that, compared to peers from two-parent households, children in single-parent households are almost three-quarters again as likely to be obese (Odds Ratio, 1.72). Not surprisingly, further analysis establishes that “total calorie and saturated fatty acid intakes were higher among children of single-parent households than dual-parent households (p<0.05).” As the intake of fatty foods soars among children living in single-parent households, so too do measured levels of Low-Density Lipoprotein Cholesterol (LDL or “Bad Cholesterol”), even as levels of High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL or “Good Cholesterol”) plummet.

The researchers understandably fear that “significantly higher cholesterol levels and lower HDL (higher LDL) levels in children from single-parent households may have public health implications.” After all, children with elevated LDL levels are “at elevated risk for C[ardio]V[ascular]D[isease], hypertension and type 2 diabetes.”

In speculating on why these problems are showing up so much among children in single-parent homes, the researchers speculate: “Obesity and high blood cholesterol may be the outcome of increased consumption of packaged and convenience foods”—an increased consumption that they suspect may take place not only in single-parent households but also in “dual-working parent households.”

As they consider the implications of “the strong relationship between single-parent status and excess weight in children,” the researchers claim “further studies are needed to explore the dynamics of single-parent households and its influence on childhood diet and obesity.” But perhaps what are really needed are studies on how to reduce the number of children being raised in single-parent households.

(Fatma G. Huffman, Sankarabharan Kanikireddy, and Manthan Patel, “Parenthood: A Contributing Factor to Childhood Obesity,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 7.7 [July 2010]: 2800–10.)