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 

Fatherless and Fat

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

With good reason, public-health officials have expressed deep concern in recent years about the growing epidemic of obesity among children and adolescents. For some reason, these officials never get around to talking about how family disintegration has helped incubate this epidemic. But new research from Ireland clarifies the linkage between childhood obesity and family breakdown. This linkage stands out clearly in the statistical data recently parsed by public-health scholars at University College Cork and the Economic and Social Research Institute at Sir John Rogerson’s Quay.

In analyzing data collected from a national representative sample of 8,568 nine-year-old children, the researchers for this study conclude—unsurprisingly—that “parental obesity is a predominant risk factor for childhood obesity.” But these researchers also identify a number of “family factors . . . [that] play a role in determining parent weight.” Household socioeconomic status emerges as one of these factors. But so, too, does family structure: “Children from one-parent families,” report the researchers, “were found to be at significantly higher odds of overweight and obesity than children from two-parent families.” Indeed, the data indicate that, compared to peers living in two-parent families, children in single-parent homes are almost half-again more likely to be obese (Odds Ratio of 1.47).

“Overall, 18.1% of children from single-parent families with a normal weight parent were overweight or obese,” the researchers find. “This increased to 34.1% when the parent was overweight and 41% when the parent was obese.”

The Irish scholars plausibly interpret their findings in light of previous “research [that] suggests that one-parent families may have greater levels of social deprivation,” deprivation that “may play a role in explaining this [pattern of childhood obesity].” Such deprivation defines the context for the researchers’ call for “broadly based population-level interventions targeting the social, economic and cultural dimensions of overweight and obesity.” Unquestionably, “the cultural dimensions” of the obesity epidemic would include those elements of culture driving the dangerous retreat from marriage on both sides of the Atlantic.

(Elimear Keane et al., “Measured Parental Weight Status and Familial Socio-Economic Status Correlates with Childhood Overweight and Obesity at Age 9,” PLOS One 7.8 [2012]: e43503.)