April 11, 2011 -- A new study has confirmed what parents of young children know from experience: It’s difficult to maintain healthy habits and juggle the demands of raising a family.
The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, finds that new moms and dads get less exercise than adults the same age who don’t have children. And mothers appear to have higher BMIs and take in more calories, particularly from saturated fat and sugary drinks, than women who don’t have children.
“Moms are trying to eat well, at least as well as non-moms,” says study researcher Erica M. Berge, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Minneapolis-St. Paul. “But at the same time, they’re also eating more of these high-fat foods with their kiddos.”
Berge says she thinks that many women in the study prepared healthier food for themselves, but also nibbled when serving foods like macaroni and cheese or chicken nuggets to their kids.
“They’re doing the good things, but they’re also doing too much of the negative things, so it increases their risk of weight gain,” Berge says.
Experts who were not involved in the study think Berge’s assessment fits.
“I think parents make sacrifices to their own detriment for their kids,” says Lori Francis, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of Biobehavioral Health at The Pennsylvania State University.
As a nutrition researcher and the mother of a 2-year-old, Francis says she felt her own life echoed in the study’s results.
“I have a very picky eater, so I go through all kinds of acrobatics just to get him to eat, and what he doesn’t eat, I’m eating, or my husband’s eating,” she says.
Or she takes her son to the park, only to stand and watch while he runs around.
Tracking Health Habits in New Parents
Researchers surveyed 1,520 young adults in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area three times from 1998 through 2009.
The average age of study participants was 25 during the third survey performed in 2008-2009.
There were 149 parents in the study, and they were compared to 1,371 men and women who did not have children. More than 90% of parents reported that their youngest child was a year old or younger.
The men and women were asked questions about diet -- how often they ate fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy products, and sugar-sweetened beverages, and about exercise -- how many hours they spent each week participating in mild, moderate, and strenuous physical activities.
After accounting for factors that might skew their results, like differences in age, race, and socioeconomic status, researchers found that among men, parenting status appeared to have little impact on diet or body weight, but for women, it was a more complicated picture.
Moms ate about 400 more calories each day than women without children. Those additional calories came from a higher intake of sugar-sweetened drinks, like sodas or drink mixes, and saturated fat. Moms weighed more than childless women, too, averaging about 1 point higher on the body mass index.
When researchers looked at exercise, parents lagged behind people without children.
Moms fell short on both total physical activity and moderate-to-vigorous exercise, the kind that’s especially good for heart health, while dads reported getting about the same total physical activity as men who weren’t parents, but doing less moderate-to-vigorous activities.
Specifically, moms reported getting about 50 fewer minutes, and dads got 93 fewer minutes, of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each week compared to people without children.
How to Get Back on Track
Experts say new parents who are thrown off balance by family demands shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help, because poor health habits can affect children and adults by creating what Francis calls an “obesigenic environment” at home.
“It sets them up on this path for creating these behaviors that are sustained and transferred from one generation to another,” she says.
Asking extended family members or friends to watch the kids for an hour can give harried parents enough time to squeeze in missed workouts or to catch up on sleep.
It can also help to reframe or redefine what you think of as exercise, Berge says.
“Instead of thinking of physical activity as something you have to do in the gym or on your own, think of it as something like a family level thing where you can walk to the park together, play tag together,” Berge says. “Encompass it as part of your day instead of thinking of it, as we all do, that it has to be individual, at the gym.”