COLLEGE STATION – The fight against obesity in children just got a new weapon, thanks to a multi-year study by researchers from Texas A&M University.
The study found that the amounts and quality of time parents spent with their children has a direct effect on children's rates of obesity, said Dr. Alex McIntosh, lead researcher. McIntosh is professor of sociology with a research appointment from Texas Agricultural Experiment Station.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture study, "Parental Time, Role Strain and Children's Fat Intake and Obesity-Related Outcomes," was published in June.
In general, researchers found the amount of time a mother spent with her child, her work stress and her income level had a larger impact in lowering the child's risk of obesity than the father's time, work stress and income, McIntosh said.
Furthermore, the more time a mother spends with the child, the less likely that child is to be obese; conversely, the more time a father spends with a child, the more likely the child will be obese, he said.
"The impacts were greater for 9- to 11-year-old children than for 13- to 15-year-old children," he added.
As a sociologist, McIntosh has long wondered how parents influence their children's nutritional habits, he said.
"The project has been in my head for well over 10 years," he said. "For a long time we thought that parents ought to influence what their kids eat, but we were not sure how that worked."
And that's what the Texas A&M researchers set out to find, he said.
"The epidemic of obesity is spreading across the United States and across the world," said Dr. Karen Kubena, one of the researchers. She is a professor of nutrition and food science and associate dean for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
"Of concern is the fact that the prevalence is increasing at younger and younger ages. ... Factors related to development and perpetuation of obesity need to be identified so that prevention can be achieved," she said.
Because so many families are headed by two working parents, the focus of the research was to look at how the parents' work-related stress, flexibility and general work conditions influenced the children's nutrition, McIntosh said.
"One factor in the development of childhood obesity that has been suggested but about which little research data exist is mothers working outside of the home," Kubena said. "The study was designed to look at time allocation and food selection and the role of women's employment. Other factors related to parental influence on children's dietary intake and body weight were assessed as well."
The research turned out to be more complicated than expected in many ways, McIntosh said. First, finding 300 families who had the right demographics and were willing to participate took 15 months. Both parents and one child had to agree to fill out a complete two-day diary, and the participating child had to be either 9-11 or 13-15. And all participating families had to live in the Houston area.
Then, collecting the data and analyzing it took about three years, McIntosh added.
"You can look at parents' time in a whole lot of different ways," he said. "We thought for starters we would focus on (the amount) of time parents spend directly with their children."
All together, the study took almost five years.
"We started in the fall of 2001 and published in June 2006," he said.
The results of the study proved surprising, McIntosh said.
The study found 9- to 11-year-olds' fathers spend an average of 80 minutes per day with their children, while mothers' average time spent with their children is 125 minutes. Children ages 13-15 included in the study saw their fathers an average of 95 minutes per day, while mothers of this age group spent an average 87 minutes per day with their children.
Income levels for the mother and father were also evaluated, examining the effects on a child's nutritional intake.
Dr. George Davis, Experiment Station economist and professor in the department of agricultural economics at Texas A&M, said as a father's income goes up, a child's body mass index also increases for 9- to 11- year-olds.
"As the mother's income goes up, so does a child's body mass index," he said.
Average household income for the father with children between 9 and 11 years old was $86,376, while the mother's income was $27,000, Davis said. The study found a mother's income was more likely to be spent on the child, while the father would allocate most of his income on personal expenditures.
Davis said a number of studies have been conducted, but none examined income, health and the amount of parental time spent with a child. Research results also showed a change in parental influence as the children get older.
"As children get older, parent impact wanes as the age of the child increases," Davis said. "They become more influenced by external factors to the home, the cultural factors."
To some extent, McIntosh said, as a researcher, he is "uneasy about what people are going to take away from this," because some might interpret the results to mean fathers should not be directly involved with their children's upbringing.
That's not true, he said. Good fathers need to be hands-on parents who set a good example for their children through their own healthful eating habits.
His advice to parents: "You're not at work 24 hours a day. For mothers: For the time you do have, spend some with your kids. For fathers: Dads are not toxic, but people who teach nutrition education may be talking to the wrong audience.
"We may need to teach fathers about nutrition," McIntosh said.
Kubena agreed. Men in general tend to have more muscles and less fat than women do, and consequently can eat more food without gaining weight, she said. That means they may not be paying as much attention to nutrition as women do.
"Knowledge of nutrition per se would be helpful," she said. "The use of nutrition for choosing foods in the supermarket and restaurant is especially important. Above all, the impact of poor food choices on future health is a concept that men need to know, accept and use for themselves today and particularly for their children's tomorrows."
The other researchers were Dr. Rodolfo Nayga Jr., Experiment Station agricultural economist; Dr. Jenna Anding, Texas Cooperative Extension nutrition specialist; Dr. Cruz Torres, sociologist and associate professor with the department of recreation, parks and tourism; Ernesto Perusquia, doctoral candidate with the department of agricultural economics; Genevieve Yeley with the department of animal science; and Wen You, doctoral candidate with the department of agricultural economics.
For a copy of the study go to http://www.ers.usda.gov/Publications/ccr19/ .
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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