Obesity is a growing health issue. Global rates of childhood obesity continue to rise, and the condition is associated with the early onset of health conditions like diabetes and heart disease. Research shows that most obese teenagers continue to battle obesity as adults and that once established, the condition is challenging to reverse1. Thus, identifying children at risk of becoming overweight or obese in adolescence is vital to prevent adverse health outcomes.
Now, research led by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) in collaboration with teams from various institutions across the globe, reveals three primary factors that predict whether a child considered to be of a healthy weight will become overweight or obese by the time they reach adolescence2. Two of which, they found, rely on a child’s mother.
The findings of the cohort study were published in the recent edition of the International Journal of Obesity. Researchers used data derived from 3,469 research subjects at birth and 3,276 subjects at kindergarten sourced from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children. The participants' height and weight were measured and recorded every two years.
The findings revealed that in addition to the child’s body mass index (BMI), their mother’s BMI and level of education are predictive factors in whether a child will resolve or develop weight issues by adolescence. This is particularly relevant in children from the ages of six and seven years onwards.
Using a child's BMI as a predictor of weight problems in adolescence
The results showed that for every unit a child’s BMI was raised at six or seven years of age, the odds of developing weight issues at the ages of 14 to 15 increased three-fold. At the same time, the odds of weight problem resolution by the teenage years halved.
Using a mother’s BMI as a predictive factor of adolescent weight issues
Similar to BMI in children, for every single unit a mother’s BMI increased when the child was aged 6 to 7 years of age, the odds of their child developing a weight problem by age 14 to 15 increased by 5%. The odds of weight issue resolution decreased by 10%.
Using a mother’s level of education to predict childhood weight problems
Interestingly, BMIs were not the only predictive factors of potential weight problems. The researchers found that a mother’s level of education could also be used as an indicator. The findings showed that the children of mothers with higher levels of education had lower odds of being overweight or obese between the ages of two and five years old. They also had higher odds of resolving obesity issues by adolescence.
Comparing risk factors
In children with none of the risk factors mentioned above at age six to seven years of age, the prevalence of being overweight or obese at fourteen to fifteen years of age was 13% in comparison to 71% in those with all risk factors present.
How can a mother’s level of education and BMI influence her child's weight?
The answer to this question is complicated and multi-factorial. In general, higher education is associated with higher income and greater overall economic stability. This, in turn, means the ability to afford a broader range of healthy foods and access to workout facilities such as gym and wellness centres, as well as the availability of time to workout. Also, those with higher education and income are more likely to seek out, and research proven weight-loss strategies and stick to them3.
As mothers usually shop and prepare food for the entire household, their choices dictate the health and wellness of the whole family. If a mother’s weight increases due to poor dietary choices, eating habits and portion size, there is a strong possibility that this will influence those under her care.
How these findings can help to prevent obesity
Commenting on the findings, one of the study’s authors, Dr Kate Lycett of MCRI said that until this study, most others overlooked identifying which children had a higher risk of becoming overweight or obese and how this could be resolved. She explains that the identification of these three factors could help medical professionals to predict which children would develop and resolve excess weight issues with approximately 70% accuracy. Targeted treatment and prevention could then be implemented to ensure that weight problems were managed and resolved effectively before adolescence.
While study's findings and recommendations are targeted at medical professionals to assist them in conducting clinical evaluations. They can, however, also be used to help mothers identify weight problems in both themselves and their children and take steps to rectify these.
What moms can do to help manage their children's weight
From the study, it is evident that a mother’s own BMI and education level can be a predictive factor in whether a child will be overweight or obese. Already having a high BMI and/or not having higher education does not have to mean that a woman and her children are doomed to being overweight or obese. Steps can be taken to make small changes that go a long way in managing and resolving weight issues.
Make efforts to manage their own weight
As mothers often predict their family’s overall health and wellness, women need to be mindful of watching their own weight. The first step is to seek out reliable weight loss information, develop a consistent strategy and stick to it.
If finances allow, enlisting the help of a dietician can be useful. If this is not possible, finding a healthy, balanced eating plan online and sticking to the recommended portion sizes can help to shed the unwanted pounds.
Where budgetary constraints may affect dietary choices, women can make small changes to food selection. This may include substituting high GI carbs with low GI ones and trading sweets and treats for fruit. Organising bulk-buying co-ops with friends and neighbours can facilitate access to fresh produce at reduced rates.
Making a consistent effort to exercise is also essential. Being active doesn’t always require a gym or exercise equipment; body weight is often all you need to build muscle. Women can find a free workout guide and make it a routine. Upping activity levels in little ways can make a big difference. Try walking instead of commuting and even taking the stairs instead of lifts can help to improve fitness.
Encouraging healthy habits in children
Dietary changes in a woman’s own life often trickle down to her children through meal preparation. However, mothers should still be mindful to educate their children on sound eating choices and the importance of exercise in health and wellness. They should also be warned of the dangers of being overweight or obese in a way that is not alarming but helps them to make healthy choices for a reason.
Eating should not be overly restrictive, but attention should be paid to portion sizes. While everything should be allowed in moderation, when children do eat treats or higher calorie meals, added exercise should be gently encouraged. Sitting around all day should be discouraged, and kids should be motivated to play sports or engage in after-school activities where possible.
Of course, in many people’s lives, access to sports and sporting facilities or even safe parks are not a reality. In these instances, kids can be encouraged to do fun exercise indoors, think jumps, jumping jacks, running on the spot, hopping, planking, dancing, stretching, pilates and more. Indoor training, dance parties and whatever a family enjoys doing together can become part of daily routines.
Motherhood is a demanding and often thankless job, and even more so for stressed out, working moms. However, making small changes that can help to facilitate weight loss where required and maintain healthy body weight. These tweaks that need a little effort are a long-term investment in sustained physical and mental health for the entire family.
1. Page K. Sustained obesity starts in early childhood. Sci Transl Med. 2018;10(463):eaav3890. doi:10.1126/scitranslmed.aav3890
2. Juonala M, Lau T, Wake M et al. Early clinical markers of overweight/obesity onset and resolution by adolescence. Int J Obes. 2019. doi:10.1038/s41366-019-0457-2
3. Kakinami L, Gauvin L, Barnett T, Paradis G. Trying to Lose Weight. Am J Prev Med. 2014;46(6):585-592. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2014.01.022