On 10th March 2019 we were confronted with the headline “Scientists blame working mothers for Britain’s childhood obesity epidemic after study of 20,000 families”. Brilliant, as if working Mums don’t have enough on our plates, now we’re responsible for the obesity epidemic too? Not surprisingly, the Mum army was furious, but what did the study actually say, and how on earth is this headline at all helpful?
Sadly, the headline was not helpful at all. Rather than offering support to working families or those with children that are classified as overweight or obese, it just caused upset, guilt and anger. I took to Instagram live and was pleased to see that that was helpful for a lot of parents, but for those of you who missed it, here’s a written summary…
What the paper said
The research was a paper published in the scientific journal SSM-Population Health, with the title “The impact of maternal employment on children’s weight: Evidence from the UK”. It tracked 19,244 children born between 2000 and 2002, measuring their Body Mass Index (a measure of weight relative to height) at 9 months, 3, 5, 7, 11 and 14 years. The premise of the paper was that both childhood obesity and the number of mothers is paid employment has risen dramatically since 1975. The hypothesis set out to test if there was a causative effect between these two factors, rather than them both being independent statistics that happen to show the same trend.
So was there a causative link?
The paper statistically concluded that there was, however it did also fairly summarise the other available research on this subject. What it found was a number of research papers that also supported the association, and an equal number that did not. It also offered two possible contradicting explanations as to how and why a mother’s employment status might link to their child’s weight:
- Working mothers have less time to prepare and cook healthy food
- Working mothers may be able to afford better quality food for their children
The study also asked two additional questions of the children / their carers:
- How many hours TV did they watch per day during term time? This was to determine how sedentary children of working versus stay-at-home mums are
- How often did they skip breakfast? To act as a measure of children’s healthy eating habits
So how robust does that make these findings? In my opinion, the existence of other conflicting studies do seem to undermine a strong statistical significance, and these additional questions do take rather a big leap between what is being asked and the conclusions drown. There are, however, some useful take-aways from it.
What can we learn?
Rather than single-handedly blame working mothers, the paper concluded that steps should be taken to better involve both fathers and childcare providers in the day-to-day childcare activities and responsibilities such as eating and exercise, something which it recorded as still falling largely to mothers regardless of employment status. It noted that, whilst again not statistically significant, children who also lived with grandparents tended to have a lower BMI, suggesting that it is this aspect of time and capacity to care for and teach and provide food for our children that was the key factor.
What about working fathers?
This was a huge objection from the audience, so to cover off why fathers were not considered in the study, this was legitimately due to a lack of data. Father’s working status was also recorded, however only about 10% of the total fathers were not in employment at any stage of the study, so sadly any conclusions drawn about fathers specifically would not be statistically significant.
A word on BMI
The main measure used to determine whether or not a child was overweight or obese was BMI, which is calculated by taking a person’s weight in kilograms and dividing that by the square of their height in meters (if you’re interested in finding out yours, I would suggest popping over to the NHS website and using their handy calculator tool). When it comes to children, this is then applied against a population average that places your child at its appropriate percentile against the population as a whole. A healthy weight is deemed to be between the 3rd and 95th percentiles.
Is BMI helpful? It does give a measure across large populations and a way to track trends, so using it to show that on average childhood obesity is increasing over time is relatively helpful. However when it comes to the individual, things are less clear cut. Total weight does not take into account heavy muscle mass or lighter fat mass such that, for example, a healthy athlete may have a much higher BMI than an elderly adult who has lost much muscle mass and gained in unhealthy fat mass. Similar can be said of children – they are all so very different, and medical professionals do not usually consider BMI alone as a measure of good or poor health.
What to do if your child has a high BMI
Children in the UK are measured at school, and that BMI measure is then communicated back to their parents for follow-up. First of all, if you’ve received such a letter, I would say not to panic. Please consult a medical professional who will be able to tell you whether or not there is something of concern.
Depending on where you live, there are varying free support services available to help you to make changes to diet and lifestyle if needed. Many Registered Nutritional Therapists such as myself, are also able to offer help and support in this area: click here to find an NT near you.
Supporting working families
I think it’s safe to say that we’re not going back to pre-1975 and looking to retire the majority of mothers from the workforce. Ethics aside, even if this was feasible from a financial perspective, I doubt it would be in any way successful. So many factors in our lives have changed in the last 45 years, many of which have contributed to a poorer diet and increased levels of obesity. So here are my alternative ideas for healthy change:
- There is no difference between kids’ food and adult’s food
One of my biggest bug bears is this notion of “kids’ food” versus adult’s food. Where did this come from? I’m not advocating weaning babies and young children on restaurant dinners or suggesting that we can’t occasionally enjoy richer or spicier food alone, but most of the food I cook and eat is not designated for a single-sized human, and that’s how it was until very recent history in the grand scheme of things.
It has become the norm to only offer children fish fingers and chips, mac and cheese or chicken nuggets in restaurants. Also normalising the omission of any type of vegetable in many cases!
When we promote foods as a “children’s dinner” in a world where working parents often are eating separately out of necessity and timings, it’s easy to see how we can get caught in the trap of feeding our children their own food at their own dinner time. But actually, was this a conscious decision? Or has it just happened due to marketing and following what peers do? Ask yourself this question – would you eat what you’re serving your children?
My challenge to you is – can you stop? Can you prepare the same food, even if it’s eaten at separate times? Or can you ensure that childcare providers that are providing this food eat the same foods with the children in order to model good eating habits? Depending on how ingrained habits are and how old your children are, this may take some time to transition, but perhaps weekends would be a good starting point – a family meal that is fun, but also healthy and suitable for all ages.
2. We don’t always need snacks
My mum always scoffs at kids’ snacks and asks when on earth did this become the way to eat? Certainly not when I was a child apparently (and we’re not even going back 40 years then either, not quite!) This is an additional area of marketing for the food industry – if children need snacks then they can sell them. And it’s completely become the norm again without many actually stopping and thinking about whether or not their child really needs a snack. If my boys eat a decent breakfast, they are rarely hungry again by 10am and actually asking for more food, unless that is, they see it, and/or their peers are eating it.
Try starting the day with a healthy and filling breakfast, and see how long your children last without asking for or visibly needing food. You may be surprised! And always take a back-up snack that is full of fibre and protein and not high in sugar.
3. The food industry is an industry
The clue is in the title – food as an “industry”. Food became a “technology” subject at school and we stopped being taught how to cook and instead learned about how to produce “food products”. Do you see the difference? We stopped leaning about how all the wonderful nutrients in our bodies really work there in a way that made them appetising, and focused instead on the art of analysing our food as products to sell. We were subconsciously trained to buy food products rather than cook them ourselves, and indeed many people I meet genuinely believe that cooking is far more difficult than it actually is (ok I may not be Michelin star standard, but what I produce is more than “edible”!) and that processed packaged foods are just as nutritious as homemade one (they are not).
There is more and more emerging evidence that processed foods are not healthy for us, regardless of how many vitamins and minerals are artificially added, and the UK is one of the biggest consumers of highly processed foods in the world (certainly lengths ahead of our European counterparts). Perhaps this change in how we learn about food, rather than the increase in working mothers, has actually driven down the route of buying more unhealthy processed foods?
4. Food labelling is too complicated
In addition to buying in to the food industry itself, we are also being constantly conned by food labelling. It is there in the guise of making it easier for consumers to make healthy choices, but oftentimes this very labelling is making it much harder than it really needs to be to make a judgement on a food’s nutritional value.
My golden rules for reading labels are very simple:
- If it has more than 5 ingredients, it’s probably not healthy
- If you don’t recognise any of the ingredients listed, or your grandparents wouldn’t, it’s probably not healthy
I teach the fundamental principals of good nutrition in my EAT TO THRIVE programme, and it’s so rewarding to help people make sense of reading food labels. There’s often a traffic light system to help busy people make good choices quickly, but this does not reflect a product’s propensity to spike blood sugar levels, and “healthy” artificial sweeteners aren’t really a healthy choice despite keeping that traffic light number in the green.
We need to approach food labelling with a more cynical eye, and increase our own confidence in reading labels, cooking and choosing healthy foods so that we can pass those skills on and model them to our children.
What can we do?
I put that question to you, and the response was fantastic, so…
1.Teach our children about food; teach them how to cook it, teach them what it does in their bodies, get them involved in every aspect of what they eat from choosing it at the supermarket/market, to growing it, chopping it, cooking it.
If you’re not preparing the food for your children, speak to those who are about doing this too. Find your most knowledgeable friend or neighbour and rope them into volunteering at your child’s school or nursery to do food-based activities with them, there are endless possibilities
2. Brush up your own knowledge and skills. It doesn’t have to be a chore to learn how to cook, there are loads of great cooking classes out there. Sign up, take a friend, learn to love cooking real food from scratch so you don’t have to rely on processed meals
3. Surround yourself with supportive friends and talk about nutrition. For older children surrounded by peer pressure, how can we help them? In all honesty I’m not there yet, but I am doing everything in my power to model good eating habits to my children and surrounding our whole family with like-minded people so that they have a group of peers in exactly the same boat.
And I talk about it! Yes, I am probably that annoying nutrition friend, but we can all do it – if you learn something, share it, talk about it. Headlines like this try to divide the working mums from the stay-at-home mums but we shouldn’t let them. If you have challenges, ask your friends for help – chances are they are experiencing or have experienced the same issues too.
4. Provide a healthy breakfast. This was the key area that consistently came up as challenging – what to serve your children for breakfast that is quick, easy and tasty, and not a high-sugar breakfast cereal that won’t support their energy levels over the course of the morning and will likely lead to more pestering or bad choices at “snack time”. So I’ve pulled together five recipes that I use on a regular basis – you can download them by signing up to my mailing list.
I hope that helps, but if you’ve any questions or requests, please do post them here, and let’s continue the conversation about how to help turn around the childhood obesity epidemic regardless of how many hours mums spend per day in paid employment! And if you’re in the Wimbledon area are would like to learn more, my next Children’s Nutrition Workshop will be taking place on 18th May.