Sunday, February 20, 2011

Gendered Calories

Researchers at American University, Cornell University, and the University of Chicago recently conducted a study in which childhood obesity is linked to working mothers.

According to the study, a child's weight increases by about one pound for each 5.3 months the mother works. Researchers aren't sure why. According to on Feb.7, 2011:
The researchers were unable to clearly explain the findings but theorized that because working mothers have little time to shop for healthy food and prepare meals, they and their children eat more fast- and packaged foods, which tend to be high in fat and calories.
Perhaps one reason why the researchers cannot clearly explain the findings is that they have incorporated a huge bias into the very foundation of their study - gender. They looked for a correlation between absent mothers and fat children and found it, thereby focussing the problem on women exclusively.

(A disclaimer here - I can find only the media reports of the study, which are often skewed. Also, I would really like to know who funded this study.)

Reuters (June 2010) reported on an earlier study done in the UK and published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in which researchers looked at working mothers as one contributing factor amongst several which affect childhood obesity:
So the trend in mothers' employment over the past few decades may be one of the variables contributing to a general erosion in children's diets; the explosion in sugary junk foods on the market, food advertising aimed at kids, and the increasing availability of high- fat, high-sugar fare in schools are among the other factors that have been blamed.

The researchers also considered socioeconomic factors.

I am not disputing the accuracy of the American study, nor am I making a comment on the possible advantages or disadvantages of working mothers.

The point is that a child's weight is influenced by several things, and the composition, quantity, and quality of a child's food, together with level of exercise, is not gendered.

Put another way - it's not the absence of the mother that makes a child fat; it's the absence of proper diet and exercise that makes a child fat. And while mothers traditionally provide those things, it is not only mothers who can do so.

North American kids have a weight problem. And there are many aspects to the problem: availability of junk food, advertising of junk food, lack of education about nutrition, absent parents, irresponsible parents, obese parents, tax subsidies to certain food producers, coercive advertising, not enough exercise...

Sure, working mothers have an effect, but how much easier it is to blame them than to fix the problem and possibly cut into somebody's profit margin, or spend the money really trying to educate people, or putting pressure on governments and companies to ensure the availability of good food, or trying to eradicate poverty.


Hels said...

A great issue to raise.

My guess is that obesity in children is far more likely to be directly caused by "availability of junk food" and "advertising of junk food". I am sure that childhood obesity will be much lower in countries where:
a] half the tv channels are public and not commercial
b] thoughtful parents allow their children to watch public tv channels only
c] junk food commercials are banned between 3.30-7PM every day, and
d] junk food shops are banned from within 1 k of any school.

If there is any connection between childhood obesity and "maternal employment", it will not a causal one. Why? because poorer families are forced to eat more junk food and cheap food than families where women are employed in decent jobs.

ChrisJ said...


I was shocked to learn that in many inner city areas, there is no grocery store, just fast food and convenience stores.

It's criminal that fast food and junk food often cost so much less than good nutritious food.

Ciss B said...

Part of it is because of the "availability" of the worst kind of foods, and of course using TV as a babysitter, too. But like Hels, it is more likely poor families don't have enough money to pay for those good foods. Our church is involved in Feeding America which helps get food to those in need and we offer them get fruits and veggies which ALWAYS disappears faster than cookies!

ChrisJ said...


You've mentioned Feeding America before - I checked ou the website and it seems like an awesome organization.

I agree that poverty is a huge issue.

Owen Gray said...

What you say, Chris, is indisputable. The quality of the food kids eat makes them fat.

There are a number of possible reasons why kids have poor diets.

Kids with stay at home mothers -- and fathers -- can eat poorly. I suspect that diet has more to do with one's economic circumstances than with whether or not one has been blessed with a mother who does not have to work. These days such women are rare creatures, indeed.

ChrisJ said...


Sometimes, perhaps it's a good thing that such women are rare creatures. I have one friend who was so "blessed," and even in her fifties, she's still suffering.

Judie said...

Our daughter Allison has always worked, and the children were in daycare for a while. She made it clear just what her girls could eat while they were there. They were very picky eaters, anyway. They are both very thin now as young adults, and the younger one is still a very picky eater. I think if you set an example at home, and let the daycare know what you expect as far as meals go, it can really go a long way to help fight obesity.

ChrisJ said...


Good examples and good instruction; exactly!

cooper said...

I would be interested at the socioeconomic break down. I's bet fast food, and fast mac and cheese in a box, is common among those with less money. They are also less likely to have fresh fruits and veges hanging around their home to snack on.

I'd like to see what "working mothers" really means in terms of what types of jobs and so one.

ChrisJ said...


That would be interesting - to have what defines working moms, jobs, etc. And I would really like to know who funded this study!

ChrisJ said...


That would be interesting - to have what defines working moms, jobs, etc. And I would really like to know who funded this study!

Judie said...

ChrisJ, just so you know, I now charge $1000 an hour to paint walls! If I had not had Keil to help me, I would probably be dead right now!!

ChrisJ said...


I hate it so much, that sounds good to me!! And isn't that about what the pros charge?!?

Judie said...


ChrisJ said...

Hi Judie,

It's nice to be missed. I'm feeling good but can't seem to generate any interest in posting - soon, I hope.