Is Adolescent Body Weight Associated With Parental Beliefs About Overweight, Attitudes Towards Food, and the Home Environment?

Abstract: Parents play a crucial role in the development of childhood overweight and also in controlling overweight. This study investigated a broad set of parental factors, including general attitudes towards food (price, identity, cooking, ecology, mood, dieting, convenience, functionality), social cognitions concerning overweight (risk perception, self-efficacy for exercising and healthy eating, response efficacy for exercising and healthy eating) and characteristics of the home environment (restriction of snacks, regular family meals, parents involved in sports) and their association with their children’s zBMI, i.e. adolescents between 12-19 years old. In a non-clinical sample of 842 parent-adolescent dyads we found that the zBMI is most strongly and positively associated with parental dieting attitudes and negatively with parents’ self-efficacy to motivate their children to exercise. The zBMI is negatively and weakly associated with dislike of cooking, identification with the way of eating and the perceived benefit of healthy eating (response efficacy). Half of the parents assessed their children’s overweight and obesity correctly, while the other half underestimated it. No difference was found with respect to all investigated variables (general attitudes, social cognitions concerning overweight and home environment) between parents who correctly perceive and those who misperceive their children’s weight status.

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Alex’s Notes: Obesity is a multifaceted disease, and while there are genetic aspects that play a role, much of obesity’s prevalence is owed to environmental and lifestyle factors. With regard to children, parents play a central role in shaping the home environment that may facilitate or prevent weight gain. In fact, some research suggests that weight loss interventions for children are more effective when it is the parents that are exclusively targeted with change.

Given the importance of parents, the aim of the study at hand was to investigate the characteristics of the home environment, parents’ beliefs concerning overweight, and parents’ general attitudes towards food and nutrition, and compare them to their children’s weight status. Students from grades 7-10 were recruited from a random sample of 89 schools stratified by school type and geographic location to help ensure a diverse sample of adolescents. In total, 842 parent-adolescent dyads were surveyed.

Nearly 80% of the parents were living together, and the average BMIs of the mothers and fathers was 24.5 and 26.5, respectively. The average age of the adolescents was 14.8 years, and roughly 17% were overweight or obese. Controlling for the parents’ BMI, children’s age and sex, and family social prestige, it was found that the children’s BMI was most strongly positively associated with the parents’ general food attitude about diet, and most strongly negatively associated with exercise self-efficiency. In other words, children were more likely to be fatter if the parents had a preference for calorie-reduced foods and paying attention to avoid “fattening foods,” while believing that exercise is fun and healthy resulted in leaner children.

Other factors that correlated with fatter children include being male, and the BMI of both parents (more strongly with the BMI of the mother than father). The other factors associated with leaner children include parental beliefs about what they eat expressing who they are (vegans are a great example of this), a dislike for cooking, and the perceived benefits of healthy eating. Preference for inexpensive foods, convenience foods, functional foods, or organically grown foods, as well as stress eating, had no significant interactions with the children’s BMI.

In addition to the above, the researchers tested the parents’ perception about their child’s weight status. Of the 17% overweight and obese children, ~30% were considered “about right” or “a little too thin,” and ~58% were considered “a little too heavy.” Still, these numbers beat the distorted body images of overweight and obese adults.

Bottom line

If you have children or friends with children, this study suggests that children’s weight is more dependent on the parents’ weight management strategies than with a lack of problem awareness. General attitudes towards food and nutrition with respect to dieting, cooking, and identity, as well as self-efficacy to motivate adolescents to exercise and perceived benefits of healthy eating were significantly associated with the adolescents’ BMI.


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