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Does Parenthood Hurt Your Health?

Parents Exercise Less, Young Moms Eat More Than Women Without Children, Study Finds
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

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.

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