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Girls in single-parent families at greater risk of obesity

The sooner we understand the risk factors that make children vulnerable to obesity, the more traction we can gain to reduce this number. D. Sharon Pruitt

In Australia, girls in single-parent families are at a higher risk of being overweight or obese than children in dual-parent families. This fits with recent research findings from the United States showing that children in single-parent households are at a higher risk of becoming overweight or obese than those from households with two parents.

A staggering one-in-four children between the ages of five and 17 are overweight or obese. The sooner we understand the risk factors that make children vulnerable, the more traction we can gain to reduce this number.

Our research indicates that children in single-parent households eat fewer servings of fresh fruit and vegetables, eat more servings of food high in fat and sugar, and spend an extra two hours every week watching television, compared with children in dual-parent families.

The difference in servings per day is relatively small, about half a serve less of fruit and vegetables, and half a serve more of food high in fat and sugar, but clearly this, combined with increased sedentary behaviour, such as watching television, is having a cumulative effect.

But does this mean we should be blaming parents for not doing their job well? Parenting is a tough job, and when you’re on your own, there are extra pressures and less support.

There’s certainly good evidence that single mothers experience more role strain than mothers in dual-parent households. Performing both the role of parent and that of wage-earner without support can lead to the sense in single mums that both roles are being compromised.

Possible causes

With less time available to perform more roles, single parents may be using the television to help manage. Watching television during meals is associated with children eating high-fat food, salty snacks and consuming soft drinks. So time-poor parents may be inadvertently setting up patterns of behaviour that increase the risk for their children of being overweight or obese.

Advertising of food products in Australia is primarily targeted at women as the food purchasers in the family. Evoking guilt is often the main marketing tool used to get busy mums to buy products that are less than optimal choices for children.

A recent episode of the Gruen Transfer on the ABC, for instance, discussed at length the tactics that marketers use when trying to sell snack bars. Snack bars are by and large high in sugar and saturated fat, but are marketed as a healthy choice. Parents who are time poor are being “guilted” into believing that the purchase of these items are a reasonable compromise, when in fact they are the types of food choice that should be kept as a rare treat.

Why girls?

The issue of why girls in single-parent households are at a greater risk of overweight or obesity than boys is an interesting one. Certainly, the data from the United States found that both boys and girls from single-parent families were equally at risk. It may be that girls are less active than boys, or environmental factors could be at play.

Mothers’ perception of neighbourhood safety has been found to predict higher weight in daughters. If single mums think their neighbourhood is unsafe, they may be less likely to encourage their daughters to go outside to exercise.

But the message for all parents is a simple one – small changes in dietary and sedentary behaviour can have an important effect. Eating less high-fat and high-sugar food and more fruit and vegetables is critical. Switching off the television for a couple of hours a week will also help.

As a society, we need to develop effective ways of getting this message out to all parents. We need to take up the challenge of how to provide more support to those parents doing the job on their own.

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