The Role of Parents in Preventing Childhood Obesity

By Lindsay, Ana C.; Sussner, Katarina M. et al. | The Future of Children, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

The Role of Parents in Preventing Childhood Obesity


Lindsay, Ana C., Sussner, Katarina M., Kim, Juhee, Gortmaker, Steven, The Future of Children


Summary

As researchers continue to analyze the role of parenting both in the development of childhood overweight and in obesity prevention, studies of child nutrition and growth are detailing the ways in which parents affect their children's development of food- and activity-related behaviors. Ana Lindsay, Katarina Sussner, Juhee Kim, and Steven Gortmaker argue that interventions aimed at preventing childhood overweight and obesity should involve parents as important forces for change in their children's behaviors.

The authors begin by reviewing evidence on how parents can help their children develop and maintain healthful eating and physical activity habits, thereby ultimately helping prevent childhood overweight and obesity. They show how important it is for parents to understand how their roles in preventing obesity change as their children move through critical developmental periods, from before birth and through adolescence. They point out that researchers, policymakers, and practitioners should also make use of such information to develop more effective interventions and educational programs that address childhood obesity right where it starts--at home.

The authors review research evaluating school-based obesity-prevention interventions that include components targeted at parents. Although much research has been done on how parents shape their children's eating and physical activity habits, surprisingly few high-quality data exist on the effectiveness of such programs. The authors call for more programs and cost-effectiveness studies aimed at improving parents' ability to shape healthful eating and physical activity behaviors in their children. The authors conclude that preventing and controlling childhood obesity will require multifaceted and community-wide programs and policies, with parents having a critical role to play. Successful intervention efforts, they argue, must involve and work directly with parents from the earliest stages of child development to support healthful practices both in and outside of the home.

Parents are key to developing a home environment that fosters healthful eating and physical activity among children and adolescents. Parents shape their children's dietary practices, physical activity, sedentary behaviors, and ultimately their weight status in many ways. Parents' knowledge of nutrition; their influence over food selection, meal structure, and home eating patterns; their modeling of healthful eating practices; their levels of physical activity; and their modeling of sedentary habits including television viewing are all influential in their children's development of lifelong habits that contribute to normal weight or to overweight and obesity. (1)

Because the parents' roles at home in promoting healthful eating practices and levels of physical activity--and thus in preventing obesity--are so critical, they should also be central to collective efforts to combat the nation's childhood obesity epidemic. L. Epstein offers three reasons for involving parents in obesity-prevention interventions. First, obesity runs in families, and it may be unrealistic to intervene with one member of a family while other family members are modeling and supporting behaviors that run counter to the intervention's goals. Second, parents serve as models and reinforce and support the acquisition and maintenance of eating and exercise behaviors. Finally, to produce maximal behavior change in children, it may be necessary to teach parents to use specific behavior-change strategies such as positive reinforcement. (2) Several successful school-based health-promotion interventions, such as Planet Health and Eat Well and Keep Moving, already include a component targeted at improving parenting behaviors, as does the well-established Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) public health and educational program. (3) Because research shows how the parents' roles in influencing the development of overweight and obesity differ at different stages of their children's development, these parenting components will be most effective if they are targeted at children in particular age groups. …

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