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 

Spring
2016

Friday, February 5, 2016 (Volume 4: Issue: 4)

The Topic: Obesity and Family Breakdown on a Global Scale

The News Story: Ending Childhood Obesity Is a Global Challenge

The New Research: Missing Fathers, Swelling Waistlines

 

The News Story: Ending Childhood Obesity is a Global Challenge

“Childhood obesity is no longer the preserve of wealthy nations,” according to a Newsweek story out this week. “There are more overweight and obese children in the developing world, in terms of absolute numbers, and an upward trend is evident.”

The story comes on the heels of the final report, presented January 25, of The World Health Organization’s Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity, established in 2014 to propose interventions to this alarming global problem. The Commission declared that “no single intervention can halt the rise of the growing obesity epidemic.” Rather, concerted government AND societal efforts are required to ensure that “ children and their parents have appropriate knowledge about nutrition, have access to affordable healthy foods and participate in physical activity.”

According to Newsweek, “The report includes six sets of recommendations and also outlines the required actions from governments, international agencies and civil society, including the private sector.” But research indicates that if they really want to combat childhood obesity, “governments, international agencies and civil society” would do well to take a hard look at their cultural views and legal statutes surrounding marriage.

(Source: Sania Nishtar and Peter Gluckman, “Ending Childhood Obesity Is a Global Challenge,” Newsweek, January 30, 2016.)

 

The New Research: Missing Fathers, Swelling Waistlines

With good reason, public-health officials have spared no effort in combatting the epidemic in childhood obesity, typically by advocating dietary reforms. If they attend to a study recently completed in Denmark, however, they may realize that they need to direct their energies in a new way. For this new Danish study makes it quite clear that children are physiologically prone to obesity if they are born in a fatherless home. 

Completed by an international team of scholars from the University of Kansas in the United States and from Aarhus University and the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, this new study focuses on the way parental separation before the birth of a child affects that child’s likelihood of becoming overweight or obese. The researchers explain, “Early parental separation may be a stress factor causing a long-term alteration in the [child’s] hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal-axis activity possibly impacting on the susceptibility to develop[ing] overweight and obesity.” 

To assess the impact of early parental separation on children’s vulnerability to weight problems, the researchers scrutinize data collected from 8,876 Danish children tracked from birth to 9-to-11 years of age. These data reveal a clear connection between early parental separation and child weight problems.

Compared to peers whose parents were living together, children whose parents lived separately before their birth were almost twice as likely to be overweight as 9-to-11-year-old children (Odds Ratio of 1.87). The researchers test the robustness of this finding by deploying a statistical model taking into account maternal education, maternal pre-pregnancy B[ody]M[ass]I[ndex], maternal weight gain during pregnancy, maternal age at birth of child, parity, the child’s gender, and breast-feeding status. But use of this model  “did not substantially change the estimates” of relative child vulnerability. The effect of parental separation stands out even more clearly when the researchers look specifically at the risk of children’s becoming so overweight that they are classified as obese: compared to peers whose parents were living together when they were born, Danish children whose parents had separated were three times as likely to be obese as 9-to-11-year-olds.

The authors of the new study recognize that their findings put them “in line with other studies.” In particular, they point to “two longitudinal studies involving American children [that] also addressed the effects of parental separation, but later in the life of the child.” Both of these American studies identified parental separation as a predictor of children’s weight problems. What is new about this study focusing on Danish children is its focus on children whose parents were already separated at the time of their birth. Quite plausibly, the researchers interpret their findings as evidence of “a fetal programming effect due to prenatal moderate stress exposure.”

The very possibility of such a “fetal programming effect” might give public-health officials pause. For such an effect may render futile attempts to fight child obesity simply by changing children’s diet. Whether they are waging their war against childhood obesity in Copenhagen or Chicago, public-health officials may need to start thinking less about what children eat and more about whether children live with both parents.   

(Source: Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King, “New Research,” The Family in America Vol. 29 Number 2, Spring 2015. Study: Lena Hohwü et al., “Prenatal Parental Separation and Body Weight, Including Development of Overweight and Obesity Later in Childhood,” PLoS One 10.3 [2015]: e0119138, Web)