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Women and Obesity Trends: What's the Link?

As it turns out, a woman's knowledge about food and obesity can have a big effect on her loved ones.
By Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH
WebMD Magazine - Feature

Last year, the research firm Harris Interactive teamed up with the nonprofit health information source HealthyWomen to survey women's beliefs about what I call the “O” word -- obesity. Most of the 1,037 women surveyed were aware that obesity is a major issue in America. But many didn't grasp how much influence their weight and diet patterns have on others. Some specific findings:

Mothers as models. Although 87% believed there is a parental role in the cycle of obesity, only 28% assigned any responsibility to themselves as mothers when it comes to their children's weight, and 57% believed a mother and father have equal influence on their child's potential for obesity.

But research shows a mother's obesity has a much greater impact than a father's. Moms are still primarily in charge of grocery shopping and meal preparation. And kids tend to emulate their moms' eating patterns.

The pregnancy connection. Only 10% of the women surveyed by Harris Interactive recognized that if a pregnant woman is obese in her first trimester, her child's risk of becoming obese more than doubles. Forty-six percent of the women weren't sure, and 11% believed there was no connection. Currently, one in five women is obese at the time of her baby's conception.

Friends and family. Less than a third of the women surveyed understood they were 57% more likely to become obese if their friend was obese, 40% if their sibling was, and 37% if their spouse was.

Obesity and health. A full 97% of the women surveyed knew obesity is associated with heart disease and diabetes. But only 30% recognized obesity is associated with gallstones and infertility, just 25% were aware it could increase the risk of colon and breast cancer, and only 13% knew of its link to uterine cancer.

A lot of women believe obesity is genetic, and so they think there's nothing they can do about it. But that's not true. Genetics may load the gun, but environment pulls the trigger. And it's becoming more and more clear that mothers' lifestyle habits can help save not only their own lives, but also the lives of their family and friends.

How Moms Can Help Their Kids Avoid Obesity

More than 30% of American kids 2 to 19 are overweight or obese. But moms can play a crucial role in helping their kids avoid obesity by following my three M's of healthy living:

Mind Set realistic goals for your children and yourself. Such goals might include being a healthy weight, having time for relaxation and play (stress can make kids as well as adults overeat), and getting enough shut-eye (sleep loss is associated with childhood obesity). 

Mouth Pay attention to the quality and quantity of what you and your kids eat and the frequency of meals and snacks. Check out the Recipe Doctor healthy meal makeovers and tools for planning meals and calculating portion sizes on WebMD.com.

Muscle Encourage your family to get more exercise by making sure they have fun in the process (think biking in the woods, playing Frisbee, or building an obstacle course in your backyard). Mandatory exercise turns kids off. Enjoyable exercise inspires them.

Reviewed on June 11, 2011

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