Who is to blame for the epidemic of overweight children? Some point at working mothers; others at parents of only children. Thankfully, Michelle Obama isn’t finger-pointing at all.

Bake sales, candy bar fundraisers, birthday and holiday parties. Aren't kids with siblings, like those without, eating sweets and washing them down with oversized soft drinks?

September is Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, and as The American Academy of Sports Medicine notes, “Everyone from scientists to celebrities is looking for ways to build awareness and solve the problem.”

Placing Blame

The European researchers who reported that singletons are 50 percent more likely to be obese are surely among those looking for ways to “build awareness,” but not necessarily in a good way. Their study, published in Nutrition and Diabetes in August, tracked children in eight European countries and found that children without siblings are twice as likely to be overweight as children with siblings. 

Beyond stigmatizing singletons, I have trouble accepting the validity of the study. For one, the education level of parents who participated was “lower.” Perhaps surveying parents who may be less informed about nutrition influenced their findings. Parents with one child in the United States can be found at all educational and income levels. 

One of the study’s authors acknowledges that point. “The fact that only children are more susceptible to obesity may be due to differences in individual family environment and family structure that we were not able to measure in sufficient detail.” And how about genetics factors that were not accounted for in sufficient detail?

Evan Nadler, M.D., co-director of the Children's National Obesity Institute in Washington D.C., told WedMD that “the study suggests an association, but does not connect the dots between being an only child and risk of being overweight. If your parents are obese, you have the highest risk, regardless of whether you are an only child or one of many,” Nadler says. “If your parenting style is to use food as a reward or pacifier, your children are more likely to have weight issues as they grow older.”

Brian D. Elbel, Ph.D., an assistant professor of population health and medicine at New York University Langone School of Medicine, said, “We are not going to say that having a second kid soon after the first is a solution.” There simply needs to be more research.

In the U.S., more than one-third of children and teens between the ages of two and 19 are overweight or obese. One study singled out working women as possible contributors to the high number of overweight children.

Do the children of working mothers weigh more?

A Cornell University health economist’s report published in Economics and Human Biology concludes that working mothers spend less time on their children’s diets. “When it comes to cooking, grocery shopping and playing with children, American moms with full-time jobs spend roughly three and a half fewer hours per day on these and other chores related to their children’s diet and exercise compared to stay-at-home and unemployed mothers.”

Although lead author John Cawley, professor of policy analysis and management and of economics in the College of Human Ecology, implies working moms may be a factor, the study does not prove that employment alone drives the way mothers spend their time. "For example, mothers who choose to work might be those who enjoy cooking less and who would cook less whether working or not," Cawley said. He points out that there are many other factors, including the role schools play: “Our findings underscore the importance of schools offering high-quality foods and physical education classes,” he said. “In general, the Institute of Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are urging comprehensive changes in school environments to promote healthy eating and active living.” No mention of only children.

Michelle Obama Doesn’t Finger-Point

Michelle Obama has been among the major spokespeople to increase awareness and educate parents and children about this epidemic. She does not finger-point at working mothers or only children in her “Let’s Move” program. And the passage of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act provides balance and nutrition in school meals. Her “Let’s Move” campaign simply asks everyone to eat healthy and be more active.

Only children more likely to be obese? Oh, please! Are we meant to add “obesity” to the already too long and undocumented myths about only children? I think not. Only children can’t possibly be the sole contributors to our childhood obesity epidemic. The number of children who are overweight is simply too large.

I ask you to observe the children in your life or around you, and report in the comment section. I predict that being overweight is not a new label society can pin on only children and their parents or on working mothers.

References:

Boscia, Ted. "Cornell Chronicle: Working Moms Spend Less Time on Kids' Diets." Cornell Chronicle: Working Moms Spend Less Time on Kids' Diets. Cornell Chronicle Online, 27 Aug. 2012. http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/Aug12/WorkingMoms.html

Bammann, K., De Henauw, S., Formisano, A., Hunsberger, M., Lissner, L., Molnar, D., Moreno, L., Reisch, L. A.  Siani A., Tornaritis, M., Veidebaum, T. "Overweight in Singletons Compared to Children with Siblings: The IDEFICS Study." Nature.com. Nature Publishing Group, 2 July 2012. http://www.nature.com/nutd/journal/v2/n7/full/nutd20128a.html

Duswalt, Marissa. "Let's Move." New School Meals! The First Lady Welcomes Kids Back to School. LetsMove.gov, 5 Sept. 2012. http://www.letsmove.gov/blog/2012/09/05/new-school-meals-first-lady-welcomes-kids-back-school

Copyright 2012 by Susan Newman

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