Do Parents Cause Obesity?

A survey of doctors says moms and dads should take the rap. Is that fair?

Parent and kids playing a game
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Here's yet another problem to hang on parents: We're the cause of obesity in our kids. Nearly 70% of doctors polled by a physicians' social network called SERMO think parents are either completely (just 12% of the 2,258 poll respondents) or mostly (57%) to blame for the childhood obesity crisis. A scant 1% of the poll participants said parents are not at all to blame.

While that was simply an opinion poll, a peer-reviewed research study looked at parents' feeding practices and kids' weight.

Both food restriction and pressure to eat can increase kids' risk of gaining weight and eating less healthfully. And echoing some of the doctors' perceptions, this study (published in the journal Pediatrics) showed a link between parents' weight, their teens' weight, and potentially harmful feeding practices.

Specifically, when both parents and their adolescent kids were overweight, parents were most likely to restrict kids' diets, encouraging them to eat less. This may sound like a good or necessary reaction to obesity. But it doesn't help kids learn how to regulate their own eating, and may cause them to overeat when their parents are not around.

A Better Response to Obesity

Another Pediatrics study looked at what parents can do to help kids manage their weight, and how doctors can help. Researchers compared "usual care" with a more tailored, personalized approach. With usual care, families got "personalized feedback and generalized advice regarding healthy lifestyle" at an initial visit and a follow-up six months later.

With the more tailored approach, parents set specific goals at the outset of the study. Then they met with a mentor every month for a year to discuss their progress and receive additional support. Parents continued to meet with their mentor every three months for another year.

The results were promising.

Children in this second group had smaller gains in BMI than the kids in the first group. They were more physically active and their diets showed improvement too.

So in this case, parents were a big part of the solution, and not the problem—but they needed help setting and achieving their goals. Doctors should keep that in mind when they're analyzing the causes of childhood obesity.

Thankfully, SERMO did quote one doctor who had a sensible take on this complicated question. A pediatrician said: "Clearly, parents need to shoulder some of the responsibility, and the blame. As parents, we have to set an example and to promote within our families healthy eating and healthy exercise. However, children are beset on all sides by ... access to cheap, high-caloric foods; glitzy advertisements; a raft of screen and video entertainment; low-nutritional value school lunches; and on and on. Parents can be perfect role models, and still lose in this effort."


Berge JM, Meyer CS, et al. Parent/Adolesent Weight Status Concordance and Parent Feeding Practices. Pediatrics, Vol 136 No 3, September 2015.

Taylor RW, Cox A, et al. A Tailored Family-Based Obesity Intervention: A Randomized Trial. Pediatrics, Vol 136 No 2, August 2015.

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