Mother’s lifestyle influences child’s obesity risk

A mother’s example could be instrumental in a child maintaining a healthy weight, suggests new research published in The BMJ.

In a study of nearly 25,000 children, those whose mothers adhered to five healthy lifestyle factors carried a 75 percent lower risk of obesity than children whose mothers had none of those habits. The factors included a body mass index (BMI) below 25, a high-quality diet, regular exercise, no smoking and low alcohol consumption.

“Our findings highlight the potentially critical role of maternal lifestyle choices in the etiology of childhood obesity and lend support to family or parent based intervention strategies for reducing childhood obesity risk,” wrote the researchers, including lead author Klodian Dhana, MD, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow with the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Dhana and colleagues found the following maternal traits were individually associated with a reduction in the child’s obesity risk:

  • Healthy BMI (56 percent reduction)
  • Moderate to vigorous physical activity for at least 2.5 hours per week (21 percent reduction)
  • Not smoking (31 percent reduction)
  • Drinking alcohol in moderation (12 percent reduction)

Interestingly, a mother following a healthy diet wasn’t significantly associated with the child’s obesity risk.

“One potential explanation for our observation of a null association between maternal diet and childhood obesity is that children’s energy intake might not be exclusively from meals prepared at home because children’s diet is influenced by multiple factors including school and neighborhood food environments and peer influences,” wrote the authors, who nevertheless said this finding was unexpected.

According to the Dhana et al., approximately 1 in 5 American children are obese, which increases the risk for diabetes and cardiovascular disease in adulthood.

The researchers pointed out a mother’s habits were more strongly predictive of her offspring’s obesity risk than the child’s own responses to a lifestyle questionnaire, possibly because children are less reliable respondents. For example, they may be more likely to overestimate physical activity and under-report the amount of food they consume.

Still, when both kids and their mothers reported adherence to healthy lifestyles, the risk of childhood obesity was cut by 82 percent when compared to mother-child pairs who didn’t follow these habits.

“In a recent analysis, we showed the importance of an overall healthy lifestyle before pregnancy as a modifiable factor for the prevention of obesity in the next generations,” Dhana and coauthors wrote. “In the current study, we provided new evidence suggesting that maternal lifestyle during their offspring’s childhood was also critical and might influence children’s obesity risk independently of prenatal maternal lifestyle. These findings highlight the crucial role of maternal lifestyle at early life stages of children in their risk of developing obesity.”

Since the women in the study were all nurses, they had a relatively homogenous socioeconomic status and educational attainment, which could limit the results’ generalizability to other populations. The researchers also acknowledged a father’s influence could be crucial to a child’s weight management, but paternal habits weren’t analyzed.