The Mother-Child Weight Connection
As the old saying goes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. When it comes to predicting whether or not a child will be overweight as an adult, you don’t have to look much farther than his mother. Maternal obesity is the single most important predictor of obesity in children.
Children of overweight moms are significantly more likely to be overweight themselves than children of normal-weight moms. While heredity is undoubtedly a critical factor, it doesn’t necessarily doom a child to a lifetime of obesity. The home environment in which a child is raised seems to be just as important as his genes. In fact, the genetic predisposition to be overweight typically is expressed only when children are reared in surroundings that are conducive to weight gain.
Fortunately, although moms make a major contribution to the genetic makeup of their children, they’re also in charge of creating the home environments in which their kids are raised. What moms are lacking in terms of genetic gifts, they can make up in other ways.
Moms: The Nutritional Gatekeepers
From the beginning of time, mothers have been charged with safeguarding their families’ nutritional health. Although more moms are working outside the home than ever before, their traditional role has changed very little.
With the hectic pace of modern life, increasing time constraints are making it tougher for working moms to meet the demands of their role as nutritional gatekeeper for their families. After a long, exhausting day at work, many women feel they simply don’t have the time or energy to prepare delicious, nutritious meals, or to supervise their kids’ eating behaviors. Nonetheless, mothers have a unique opportunity—and a responsibility—to teach their children about the benefits of sound nutrition.
Before mothers can teach their children about good nutrition, they must first educate themselves. A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture study found that the more a mother knows about nutrition, the less likely her children are to be overweight.
Mothers’ levels of physical activity are strongly correlated with their children’s weight. The offspring of sedentary mothers are prone to be inactive themselves, and this lack of exercise is closely linked to weight control problems.
The good news is that the opposite is also true: Children of active parents are roughly six times more likely to be physically active than kids whose parents are card-carrying couch potatoes.
During their early years, children are busy forming attitudes about foods and developing the eating habits—good or bad—that will follow them throughout their lives. Food preferences are firmly established as early as five years of age. For this reason, the first five years of children’s lives are critical in terms of providing them with an understanding of what constitutes a well-balanced diet. It’s also the best time to introduce them to a wide variety of nutritious foods that they can continue to eat and enjoy as they grow older.
Moms are Role Models
Even more important than how a mom manages her child’s diet is how she manages her own. Children model their own eating behaviors after both of their parents, but especially their mothers. As the most influential person in her child’s life, a mother sets the stage for childhood eating behaviors. Whether they realize it or not, moms are constantly in the spotlight, providing their children with a steady stream of information about when, what, and how much to eat.
Kids are quick to pick up and mimic the environmental cues that trigger eating in the adults around then, especially their moms. As they continue to grow and develop, these cues become deeply engrained and cemented. Eventually, children learn to respond to the same eating cues as their mothers, without giving them much conscious thought.
Building a Healthy Partnership
As the most important role models in their children’s lives, moms must lead by their own, positive examples, and encourage their children to follow suit. By making healthy eating and exercising habits a team effort, both moms and kids will benefit. Here a some suggestions to help you build a partnership with your child.
Learn together. Take a trip to your local library and check out books on nutrition that are geared for moms, kids, or both. Take a look at nutrition labels and discuss the ingredients and nutrient values of your favorite foods.
Shop together. Going to the grocery store can be a fun and educational mother-child adventure. Allow your child to help you shop by choosing a few nutritious snacks or a favorite fruit or vegetable.
Prepare food together. Invite your child into the kitchen to help you prepare nutritious meals and snacks. Encourage her to help you plan meals with good nutrition in mind.
Eat together. Turn off the television, sit down at the table, and make meals and snacks relaxed, positive affairs.
Exercise together. Make fitness a fun by joining your child in a game of tag or a walk around the block. The more your child enjoys exercising, the more often he’ll do it.
Rallie McAllister, MD, the author of The Busy Couples Guide to Great Sex: The Medically Proven Program to Boost Low Libido (LifeLine Press, September 2003), and Healthy Lunchbox: The Working Mom's Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim (LifeLine Press, September 2003), runs a family practice specializing in nutrition, wellness, and weight loss called Healthy Solutions, in Kingsport, Tennessee. Dr. McAllister is the creator and popular host of Rallie On Health, a health magazine TV show with over 1 million viewers in the five-state area of eastern Tennessee. Millions across the country also know her for her weekly nationally syndicated column called "Your Health by Dr. Rallie McAllister." Dr. McAllister lives with her husband and three children in Kingsport, Tennessee. Visit Rallie at www.rallieonhealth.com.