Healthy eating begins at home — or at least, that’s what every government leaflet and health class presentation has told us. In reality, raising children with a healthy weight is much more complicated than slapping some fruits and veggies on the table. After reading a recent study about obese children and marriage, we wanted to learn more about how family structure affects food choices — and what we can do about it.

Photo: Caitlin Covington

White Picket Fence — What’s the Deal?
This week, researchers from Rice University and the University of Houston released a thought-provoking study on the connection between obesity and family life. After tracking 10,400 children for more than five years, the scientists deduced that children who lived with married parents (either both biological parents or one biological parent and one stepparent) or with single fathers had lower obesity rates than those who lived with unmarried adult couples, single mothers, or relatives. This sounds like yet another study touting two-parent, traditional families (put a ring on it!), and a lot of news outlets have presented it this way. But wait — it also showed that children raised by single fathers (arguably the least traditional household setup) are least likely to become obese. Huh?

The data itself was pretty clear, but the reasons behind the study’s findings were less easily explained. While many headlines wax poetic about the benefits of a traditional two-parent family structure (read: husband and wife), the children with the lowest obesity rate (15 percent) were actually raised by single fathers. The reason, the researchers speculate, is because single men often have more financial resources than single women (a topic for a whole other article). Children from Norman Rockwell-esque, married-parent homes displayed the second lowest average obesity rate (17 percent), though the researchers don’t have an explanation for why.

In contrast, kids growing up in “nontraditional” living arrangements had notably higher obesity rates: 29 percent for children living with adult relatives, 31 percent for children who live with cohabitating (but not married) parents, 23 percent for children raised by single mothers, and 23 percent for kids living with cohabitating (unmarried) stepparents. The study is limited by the fact that it didn’t include data on children living with either married or unmarried single-sex couples. Interestingly, recent research has shown that children of same-sex couples scored higher for health, family cohesion, and communication than kids raised in heterosexual households.

How did the researchers separate family situation from all the other factors that can contribute to childhood obesity? Based on the fact that socio-economic status is strongly correlated to health, the researchers included in their sample a large number of children from all economic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds (the idea being that they could then study family structures independent of these considerations). Of the study sample, 46 percent of the children were racial or ethnic minorities, 25 percent were poor (i.e., under the United States Federal Poverty line), and 16 percent of the children across the board had mothers who never received their high school diplomas (the study doesn’t mention the fathers’ educational status, another possible confounding factor).

The researchers conducted interviews over the course of five years — when the children were nine months old, two years old, preschool age (three or four years old) and kindergarten age (usually five years old). In each interview, the researchers measured the children’s height and weight and cognitive function. The primary caregiver also answered questionnaires about the child’s current family structure and the structure into which the child had been born.

We Are Family — Is it Legit?

While this study sheds light on many different kinds of living situations and their potential associations with kids’ wellbeing, it’s not the first article to link family life to children’s healthHealthy habits, happy homes: methods and baseline data of a randomized controlled trial to improve household routines for obesity prevention. Taveras EM, McDonald J, O’Brien A, Haines J, Sherry B, Bottino CJ, Troncoso K, Schmidt ME, Koziol R. Department of Population Medicine, Harvard Medical School and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute, Boston, MA, USA. Preventative Medicine. 2012 November; 55(5):418-26.. Listening to Michelle Obama, state government health initiatives, or Michael Pollan, one could easily get the impression that preparing healthy family meals is the solution to our nation’s so-called “obesity crisisCan family meals protect adolescents from obesity? Tabak I, Jodkowska M, Oblancinska A, Mikiel-Kostyra K. Zaklad Ochrony I Promocji Zdrowia Dzieci I Mlodziezy, Instytut Matki I Dziecka, Warszawa, Polska. Medycyna Wieku Rozwojowego. 2012 October-December; 16(4):313-21.. These schools of thought make an important distinction: Perhaps it’s the home cooking and the shared meals that matter most, and not the familial structure of the people (single, cohabitating, or otherwise) who are doing the cooking and sharing.

Regardless, for many families (including, as the study points out, many non-traditional two-parent families), sitting down to a wholesome meal after school and work isn’t easy. Shopping for healthy ingredients, planning menus, and scheduling time to cook each night takes financial resources as well as time, advance planning, and work. Who puts in that effort? Most often, it’s womenGuess who’s cooking? The role of men in meal planning, shopping, and preparation in US families. Harnack L, Story M, Martinson B, Neumark-Sztainer D, Stang J. Division of Epidemiology, School of Public Health, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, USA. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 1998 September; 98(9):995-1000..

Despite our 21st-century concern with equality and the busting of traditional gender roles, women are still bearing the brunt of the so-called “second shift” — i.e., the work of running a household and raising children, even after a full day’s work. It’s no wonder that for a quick and cheap meal, many women turn to restaurants, convenience foods, and drive-throughs to get food on the table after a long day.

When you put two and two together, the nation’s struggles with obesity (especially in children) start to make sense. Since the 1950s, women have spent less time at home and more time at work. Between 1950 and 1999, the rate of women in the workforce grew from 33 percent to 61 percent. It’s interesting that at the same time that large numbers of women took off their aprons and went to work, childhood obesity rates began climbing. Since the 1960s, obesity rates among children across the country have tripled.

So are working moms the reason so many kids today are overweight and obese? According to many sources, the answer is yes. Researchers have even published studies proving that the number of hours a woman works out of the home is directly related to the weight of her childrenMaternal employment and overweight children. Anderson PM, Butcher KF, Levine PB. Department of Economics, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, USA. Journal of Health Economics. 2003 May; 22(3):477-504..

But career-minded ladies shouldn’t be scapegoated for kids’ increasing waistlines. All parents should be aware of what their kids are eating, sure. But banishing females back into the home in the name of healthy families (just kidding, obviously) is hardly fair. We need to take a look at overarching trends that force working women (and caregivers in general) to make tough choices in terms of food. For example, over the past 50 years, the food industry has dramatically increased serving sizes and loaded convenience foods (which we’re most likely to reach for when time or money is tight) with preservatives as well as addicting salt, sugar, and fat. Can parents (single or otherwise) really be blamed for decisions that have been made way high up in the food industry chain?

Plus, most companies still uphold the traditional 9-to-5 (or later) in-office day — a schedule that makes it tough to earn a living and raise children at the same time. Before condemning women for causing childhood obesity, perhaps it’s more important to take a good hard look at our country’s gender relations and systems of food and work.

The Dinner Dilemma — Why it Matters

Government initiatives and slow-food movement organizers can herald the benefits of the home-cooked, family dinner until they’re blue in the face. But the so-called “childhood obesity epidemic” can’t abate until men and women really, truly, finally share house and kitchen duties— or until healthy faster-food actually exists and is accessible to people of every socio-economic background. Right now, economic and social structures have made it extremely difficult for busy and often cash-strapped families (of all shapes and sizes) to commit to healthy eating.

The Rice University/University of Houston rates certain households as inherently “healthier” than others, but we certainly shouldn’t take its conclusions to mean that the best way to raise kids is with two married parents. More important than the bodies in the house is the level of engagement between all family members — children who interact positively with their parents, and parents who commit to eating real food and splitting the work of preparing meals together.

Why do you think children of single mothers or non-traditional households are more likely to be obese? What changes do you think would make it easier for all types of families to raise healthy kids? Share your ideas in the comments below or tweet the author @SophBreene.