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Are Working Moms Driving Childhood Obesity?

No worries, I am already holding my ears to avoid the screams of protest that I expect to get in response to this post.

But the idea that working moms may well play a noticeable role in the development of childhood obesity is indeed one that is suggested by Angela Pinot de Moira and colleagues from University College London, UK, in a paper just published online in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

The premise is simple: one of the most dramatic demographic shifts in the last decades has been the proportion of moms that work. From being the exception in the 60s, to becoming pretty much the norm for the majority of mothers today, this demographic shift has undoubtedly had profound effects on family life.

Not surprisingly, some have argued, that not having a parent at home (and traditionally this used to be the mom) may very much increase the risk of weight gain in offspring.

Thus, not only do “latchkey kids” have more freedom to eat unhealthy foods and spend afternoons slumped in front of the TV or computer, but long hours at work can also leave moms (or dads) short of time to prepare healthy family meals (ergo the dramatic rise in fastfood and family restaurants).

In addition, working mothers (or dads) may also have to drive their children to school rather than have the time to walk them there and working partents certainly don’t have the time to watch over their kids on the playground all afternoon or be at home in case their kids scrape a leg falling off their bikes or get beaten up by the neighbourhood bully.

So is this hypothesis borne out by the data?

To address this question, the authors examined members of a 1958 British birth cohort (age 7 years, n=8,552) and offspring (ages 4-9 years, n=1,889) born to mothers under age 30 years to establish whether risk factors for childhood obesity have changed over time (1965-1991).

The authors found that the prevalence of overweight/obesity had increased by more than 50% between generations and that parental BMI was strongly associated with offspring BMI.

But perhaps more interestingly, full-time maternal employment turned out to be positively associated with offspring BMI in childhood with an increase of 0.4-0.5 units in kids with working moms. This relationship was in fact stronger in the offspring than in the original cohort.

Maternal employment was found to have increased by more than 30% across generations, as a result of which, the population attributable risk maternal employment increased from 3.1% to 7.8% across generations.

In addition, the authors noted that smaller family size and fewer younger siblings were also associated with increased childhood BMI.

As argued by Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi in their bestseller “The Two Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke“, even if all kinds of issues may be linked to working moms, simply asking moms to stay at home is neither feasible nor socially desirable (incidentally, both authors are working moms).

Rather, other measures, including proper and affordable day care, accessible and supervised after-school activities and more flexibility in working hours may help moms (and dads) better meet the demands of their kids, thereby hopefully reducing their risk for obesity.

I wonder what my readers think of this hypothesis and what (if anything) can (should) be done about it.

Edmonton, Alberta

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de Moira AP, Power C, & Li L (2010). Changing Influences on Childhood Obesity: A Study of 2 Generations of the 1958 British Birth Cohort. American journal of epidemiology PMID: 20488872


  1. Thought provoking study.

    Makes me think about correlation versus causality.

    I wonder whether the rise of the working mother helped fuel the need for the fast food lifestyle people now live. Frequent family meals out, eating from reheated boxes and mixes and the subsequent decline in cooking.

    I wonder though how the premise would hold up in countries where mothers rarely work yet obesity rates are climbing or if there might be correlations there too.

    Would love to have seen a control for cooking versus non cooking mothers, and when I say cooking, I mean with real food ingredients from scratch.

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  2. Other than the fact that there is the typical ‘blame the unmaternal mother’ aspect to this argument, I agree with Yoni’s question about causality vs correlation. It seems to me that the food industry has also changed dramatically in the past several decades (technology, food additives). Blaming working mothers doesn’t help. Also, I think the unit of measurement should have been ‘parent’ not ‘mother’. Dads work and stay home too and should share equal burden for obese children.

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  3. Time to start paying women for all the work they do at home – tax deductions for kids activities was a good start. But take away the emphasis on professional sports and olympics and put it back into kids activities that everyone can afford to participate in.

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  4. As a working mother and a health writer specializing in diabetes and obesity issues, I have asked myself this question many times. While all parents face challenges in feeding their families (the high cost of fresh food, lack of cooking skills, picky children who are conditioned by media to crave high fat/sodium/calorie foods, etc.), parents who work outside the home 8 to 10 hours/day are also exhausted and pressed for time. The barriers to good eating habits are so great, parents should be commended anytime they manage to put something other than pizza or KD on the table. Solutions are complex but could start with the return of home economics classes (for girls and boys) so that people learn how and what to cook; flexible work schedules so that parents have time to cook; affordable after-school physical activity programs for kids; and, a recognition that both mothers and fathers have an equal role to play in raising healthy children.

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  5. Agree with Yoni on control group. Some of us working moms actually know how to cook real meals, pack healthy lunches for the child, and actually TEACH the child what’s healthy and what’s not, limit child’s screen time, etc., etc.
    It does take some extra time but with a little planning it works quite well and I think most of us would agree that time taken to ensure our children’s good health is time well spent

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  6. I wonder if mothers actually do more work now than they used to. Women who lived in the 50s were extremely busy, maybe more-so than today. Both of my grandmothers worked during the 50s because they had to, and this was very common among everyone they knew. And the type of work they did was far more exhausting than what the average woman does now. I know that my grandmothers were far, far busier than my own mother was even though my mom worked full-time and my grandmothers only worked part time. Even during the years when my maternal grandma didn’t have a paying job, she worked from dawn until dusk just to maintain the house. If my mom wanted to spend “quality time” with her mom, she would have to take on extra chores just so her mom would have the free time. And as soon as my mom was old enough, she did the majority of the cooking. Maternal employment may have risen, but I don’t think that mothers are necessarily busier overall than they used to be.

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  7. The wealthy countries of the Persian Gulf (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Kuwait) and also middle to upper-class families in Asia would be a good control for this hypothesis. Women tend to work fewer hours outside the home than in the US (although contrary to the stereotype it is very normal and common for women in the Middle East to have outside work). But at the same time many to most middle class families have servants who do much of the housework and also cooking, usually traditional foods prepared from healthy ingredients. This does not keep younger people from eating a lot of fast food inside and outside the home. And in the Gulf at least, obesity rates are on a par with North America, along with the related conditions like diabetes and hypertension.

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  8. The behavior of kids is just as different now as the behavior of mothers. Even though my mother was usually there when I got home from school (having walked ~ 1/4 mile, alone, from the bus stop), I was usually told to ‘go outside and play’ until dark, unless the weather was terrible. Parents today are afraid to let their children play unsupervised, which means that there’s not much activity that a child can do besides play video games or watch t.v.

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  9. I do not agree with the hypothesis that say that current status of child obesity that we have today is due to working mother. I will rather say that it is more due to the types of foods that the child eat especially fast food.

    Possibly, the hypothesis indirectly trying to say that if a mother go to work then the tendency will be higher that their child have no choice except to go to fast food. But still… We could not blame the working mother. We should blame the food!

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  10. I appreciate the highlighting of the link between maternal employment and overweight children, but this correlation is relatively minor if we look at the big picture. I’m not particularly well-read in this area but I think the more popular hypothesis is that food culture has shifted dramatically. The obesity epidemic is more closely linked with food availability than anything. The explosion of the packaged and frozen food industry in the 70s and 80s and the rise of the chain restaurants seem like major culprits.

    You have to remember that major cultural shifts typically lag behind technological shifts. In this case, the shift is from active, ritualized eating to a more passive cultural norm whereby food is often passively received and the concept of ritually timed meals has deteriorated. Remember that going to get fast-food was an atypical event for most families not too long ago. Today, “grabbing a burger” is probably as common as sitting down for a decent meal with the family.

    Of course, parental choice plays a major role, as we are not necessarily slaves to cultural norms. So I both agree and disagree with Jamaican Stone. The study refers to prevalence, meaning there are children who are obese and others who are not. You can’t say the food, or the food culture, is the problem when you have so much variation. Obviously, some working families are not slipping into the same trap.

    Also, I agree with the point about reduced physical activity and outdoor play. Not only does physical activity have obvious health benefits, but it is less time spent within metres of a kitchen. Think of the implications that exposure to an environment where the child is surrounded by food has on their pattern of eating behaviours.

    Also, I hate to be anal, but everyone is misusing the term “control group”. That is reserved for prospective research. In retrospective research, where we often look at population stats, we use the term “comparison group” because we are not actually controlling anything. The groups just happen to be different naturally. Again, sorry for being anal.

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