How do parenting styles and the bigger social context combine to affect the chances of a child of becoming obese?

Published in the journal Preventive Medicine, a study from a team of Canadian researchers suggested that parenting and poverty are both crucial predictors of childhood weight and health.

“[C]ertain types of parenting would be associated with a higher risk of childhood obesity… the strength of this association would differ between children living in poverty and those who aren’t,” said lead author Lisa Kakinami, math and statistics assistant professor at Concordia University in Montreal.

To assess if certain parenting methods increase a child’s obesity risk, the team used statistics from a national survey of over 37,000 children from 1994 to 2007, comparing factors such as socioeconomic status, characteristics of family, and height and weight.

The research was based on a framework for parenting styles, dividing them into four classifications:

  • Authoritative - demanding and responsive
  • Authoritarian - demanding but not responsive
  • Permissive - responsive without being demanding
  • Negligent - neither

Results showed that preschool and school-level kids born to authoritarian parents were 35 and 41 percent more likely to be obese than those with authoritative ones.

Family income had its effect: obesity risk among preschoolers was 20 percent higher in poverty-stricken kids than in those who are better off, regardless of parenting technique. Of the non-poor segment, 44 percent and 26 percent increased obesity risk manifested among children with authoritarian and negligent parents.

“Authoritarian parenting may translate to parents not responding to children's cues of hunger and/or feeling full, and demanding or controlling the child's energy intake,” explained Kakinami, saying it led to poor eating regulation and greater tendency to overindulge in the affected kids.

Pediatrics associate professor Geoff Ball of University of Alberta said that while the large national sample is a good start, the dependence on parental reporting was a weakness of the study. He instead prefers external and unbiased measurements.

Ball noted that the study least connected obesity risk with authoritative parenting. "We've all seen that situation where kids can't leave the dinner table until they finish their broccoli, and it's a stalemate. That's not a healthy way for food to be enjoyed," he stressed.

"Parents are responsive to their children's hunger and their cues, not ignoring them," he said, meaning parents provide the food and let their children decide how much and when to eat.

In a Letter to the Editor of a Canadian publication, Warren Dusek of Toronto criticized the focus on behaviors rather than social health determinants of childhood wellness.

“Poverty is touted as the study’s second finding but this is not weaved appropriately into the discussion,” he wrote, pinpointing that not all families, for instance, can readily afford vegetables, typically among the first items removed from grocery lists due to poverty.

Dusek also called for an analysis of the role of poverty in childhood obesity instead of “blaming low-income parents doing all they can” to feed their wards.

According to a 2013 report from the World Health Organization, 42 million infants and youngsters worldwide were obese or overweight. Based on current trends, the figures will climb to 70 million by year 2025.

Photo: Brianna Lehman | Flickr

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