The Role of Parents in Preventing Childhood Obesity
Posted By: Kyung Rhee
When it comes to causes for the rise in childhood obesity, there have been many possible culprits: increasing portion sizes, the easy availability of high fat, nutrient poor foods, and fewer opportunities for physical activity. But what about the influence parents play? Although research has revealed a link between parent weight and child weight, the fact is that not all children of overweight parents are overweight themselves. Parents not only give their genetic make-up to their child, they can also have influence through the way they parent their children. In fact, parents may be able to buffer the impact of larger, environmental factors on whether or not a child becomes overweight.
Studies have shown that parents who engage in healthier eating and activity habits are more likely to have children who mimic these behaviors as they grow into adulthood. Thus, in order to get children to develop healthier eating and activity behaviors, parents must first engage in these behaviors themselves.
Parents can also shape their child’s food preferences and eating behaviors by making sure that healthier options are readily available. For example, remove all chips and cookies from the cabinets and have fresh fruit or cut up vegetable sticks readily available and visible so that when children are hungry for a snack, their only option is a healthy one. The same principle works to decrease sedentary behaviors. Studies have shown that children with a TV in their bedroom spend an additional 1.5 hours per day watching television than children without a set in their room. Removing the TV from the bedroom can help reduce screen time and consequently free up more time for physical activity. Placing objects that encourage children to be physically active (like a jump rope or running shoes) in plain sight can also serve to remind them that there are other options for entertainment than the computer or TV. By controlling the home environment, parents can shape their child’s behaviors, reduce temptations, and create a health-inducing space.
On the other hand, certain behaviors can have negative effects and should be avoided. Encouraging children to clean their plate, whether they are hungry or full, teaches them to ignore their own internal satiety cues. Over the long run, this type of behavior may lead to overeating and the loss of any self-regulatory ability regarding food intake. Studies have also shown that prompting or encouraging children to eat may result in increased eating time and caloric intake. So allowing children to internally regulate their intake and stop eating when they are full may be a practice worth adopting. However, once children become overweight, their ability to self-regulate intake may be altered and additional regulation or monitoring of how much and what they eat may be necessary.
Using food as a reward can also have deleterious effects. While it is easy to promise children some ice cream if they eat their broccoli, this behavior can result in a tendency to devalue the broccoli and increase the desirability of ice cream. Eating broccoli becomes a chore and simply a means to get to the reward food: ice cream. In contrast, praising children for eating their vegetables may help to develop an intrinsic desire to eat the vegetable and cultivate the ability to eat it for itself, not as a means to another food.
Finally, studies have shown that restricting access to desired foods, especially if they are still available and visible to children, increases the value of that food and makes it more desirable. Think of a situation when a piece of cake is visible on the counter, but the children are told that they are not allowed eat it. When children later have free access to the cake (say, when parents are out of the house) they will tend to eat it whether or not they are hungry. Thus restricting highly desired foods can result in children responding to external cues of availability rather than internal cues of hunger and satiety. Removing all undesired foods from the house (and setting up a healthier home environment) would be a better option.
Parents can also affect their children more broadly via their “parenting style,” the general pattern of parenting that provides the emotional background to the parent-child relationship. One particular parenting style, the authoritative approach, has been associated with better child outcomes along many dimensions. This parenting style can be described as one of warmth and sensitivity to the child’s developmental needs. These parents are emotionally involved with their children, but also express certain expectations and define clear boundaries for them; they are considered to be firm, but flexible, allowing children to express their independence, but within the confines of certain rules. Interestingly, this parenting style has also been associated with a lower prevalence of childhood obesity. Encouraging the use of this parenting style in conjunction with specific health-promoting behaviors may have the greatest impact on the development of healthy eating and activity behaviors among children.
Ultimately, parents who are involved in their child’s growth and development, and who adopt, implement, and model healthier behaviors themselves, are more likely to be successful at preventing their child from becoming overweight or in helping them lose weight. No matter what the genetic or predetermined risk of obesity is for a child, parents still have a lot of control over their child’s home environment and their dietary and activity choices. Making these changes may have a positive impact on a child’s future weight status.
Kyung Rhee is assistant professor of Pediatrics at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.