Research shows mothers’ health habits have a significant impact on childhood obesity. Your mom might be responsible for more than your DNA. New research shows she could also have an impact on your BMI. Which five behaviors do you need to adopt to ensure your children maintain a healthy weight?
A 2018 study published in The BMJ reviewed health information from 24,289 children aged 9–14 and found those with mothers who ate healthy diets, exercised regularly, maintained BMIs in the ‘normal’ range, drank alcohol in moderation and did not smoke were 75% less likely to be obese than children whose mothers did not maintain healthy lifestyle behaviors. When both mothers and children embraced these five habits, the risk of obesity was 82% lower.
Researcher Qi Sun, MD, an associate professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, breaks down the reasons each of these lifestyle behaviors impacts childhood health:
The connection here is simple: Mothers who are active encourage their children to be active. (A paper published in the journal Pediatrics found the less active moms are, the less active their children are). Active moms might spend more time engaged in activities like jumping rope, hopscotch, biking and swimming with their children. Sun believes mothers who prioritize exercise are also are more apt to register their children for organized physical activities such as basketball or soccer.
Children get almost 30% of their calories from snacks, according to a 2010 study — and all of those desserts and sugar-laden beverages have led the number on the scale to creep higher. Moms who eat healthy diets can help keep their children’s weight in check. “Children are more likely to accept [healthy foods] like whole grains and fruits and vegetables if their mothers prepare them and eat them,” Sun says.
BODY MASS INDEX
In a study of 215 mother/son and 212 mother/daughter pairs, researchers found strong correlations between maternal BMI and the risk of childhood obesity. Researchers attributed the findings to a combination of genetics and home environment. Sun agrees, noting BMI is “a good measure of physical activity and diet” and one of the strongest factors for predicting childhood obesity.
DRINKING IN MODERATION
Moderate alcohol consumption — defined as one drink per day for women — is associated with a lower risk of hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain cancers. Research also found women who consumed light-to-moderate amounts of alcohol gained less weight over a 13-year period than non-drinkers. The BMJ research found children of moderate drinkers were less likely to be obese, but Sun admits the mechanism is not well understood.
Children of smokers are at higher risk of picking up the habit, according to research published in the journal Pediatrics. Exposure to secondhand smoke also has serious health consequences. When parents smoke, children are more apt to be overweight or obese. This creates a host of health issues: Obese children are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes and secondhand smoke is associated with increased risk of asthma, infections and lung cancer. Sun notes that steering clear of tobacco has a significant impact on childhood health. “If a mother doesn’t smoke, children’s risk of being obese drops substantially,” he says.
While The BMJ research found the cumulative impact of these five factors had the biggest effect on childhood obesity, Sun notes that smoking status and BMI showed the strongest connections. He hopes the research encourages parents to think about how their behaviors impact their children, explaining, “It’s never too late to think about improving your lifestyle. The actions mothers take could help to cure the childhood obesity epidemic.”