Do Obese Parents Equals Obese Kids?

Healthy Family

It is hard not to notice obese kids – at least it is for me. I see little girls and boys who are obviously overweight  when I am in Wal-Mart, at church, in Kroger, when we are running errands, and when we visit museums or take family trips. I feel sad for those kids because I know how hard being obese was for me as an adult, and can only imagine how difficult it is for overweight children.

There has been a lot of research on obesity, both for children and adults. I’m always curious about the relationship between a parent’s weight and a child’s weight. I live in the South, so we have higher obesity rates for both children and adults than other parts of the country do.

One research study published in PLOS ONE examined relationships between obesity in children and parents based on a variety of variables. Their results were:

Odds ratio analyses found children were 2.1 (95% confidence interval (CI): 1.6, 2.8) times more likely to be obese if only their father was obese, 1.9 (95% CI: 1.5, 2.4) times more likely if only their mother was obese, and 3.2 (95% CI: 2.5, 4.2) times more likely if both parents were obese.

I can believe these statistics based on my personal observations of family units I see around here. It seems that if both parents walking through Wal-Mart (or wherever) are obese, it is pretty likely that the children with them also struggle with their weight.

I know that this is hard to think about if you are a parent who struggles with his or her weight because the last thing we want to do is negatively influence our children. Every parent I know wants his or her child to have a better life in every area from finances to health. I know I do.

My children were not obese when I was, and for that I am thankful. A lot of my poor eating behaviors were done in private and I limited the amount of junk they had. (Although they did eat Pop Tarts for breakfast and often had Oreo cereal for snack. 🙁 )

Positively influencing the children around us is a great incentive to get to a healthy weight. I know that for me, it was one of my primary motivators. I not only wanted to be at a healthy weight to look better, feel better, and have more energy – I also wanted to be at a healthy weight for my children. I wanted to be a good example for them, have enough “get up and go” to keep up with them, and also did not want them to be teased for having a “fat mom.” (And believe me, that does happen.)

I wanted to send them off into adulthood with healthy eating habits rather than the habits I had developed as a young adult. And I inherently knew that if I did not make that shift when they were young, it would be doubly hard to make the shift when they were older. I’ve had friends who have older children who feel resentful when their parents start changing the foods they buy and the foods they cook because the kids have grown accustomed to junky, processed foods.

I don’t know about you, but it makes me sad when I see little children who are obese guzzling down a soda, munching on a huge bag of potato chips, or eating junk food. Often times the parents are also eating the same foods as the kids.

There is no easy solution to the problem of obesity among children or adults. We have come so far in this country in terms of technology and communication, but seemed to have slipped backwards in terms of healthy eating and healthy food preparation methods. Too often children of today are glued to “screens” such as smartphones, tablets, video game consoles, and televisions that they have no desire to go outside nor do their parents encourage them to.

If you are a parent and struggling with your weight, I know how hard and frustrating it can be because I was absolutely there. I just want to encourage you that although we cannot solve the country’s obesity crisis, we certainly can positively influence our children when we take steps to eat and prepare healthy, whole foods. We can also influence our kids by being active ourselves and making a deliberate effort to have our kids participate in activities that get them moving.

What are your thoughts on obese kids and obese parents? Do you see some solutions for changing the dynamic? Diane



Family image courtesy of arztsamui

48 thoughts on “Do Obese Parents Equals Obese Kids?

  1. blackhuff says:

    My children were not overweight when I was obese but sadly the opposite is now true. I now have lost the weight and now my son is overweight. This due to the fact that I can’t control what he consume at school which are sweets, soft drinks and chips. He is making the wrong choices and this is so sad.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      That is sad that the schools over there allow all that in the school. Where we lived before they banned sodas from the elementary and middle schools and were working on eliminating it from the high schools.

  2. HappinessSaovuredHot says:

    Among all my jobs as a mom, and up there in the priorities, is my responsibility to teach my children healthy habits. My daughters already make the equation: too fat or too skinny (it goes both ways) equals unhealthy. It’s not even about aesthetics… it’s about the basis of your health!

    I feel very sad when I see obese children, and it’s very hard to me not to feel judgmental about the parents. I know some bloggers won’t like what I write here, but my opinion on the topic is strong: keeping our kids withing a healthy weight range is one of our most important roles, and we can’t afford to fail at it.

    How can a little body (and brain) build on strong foundations if it doesn’t even have the right material to begin with? If my kids became obese at such a young age, when I still have power over their food and level of activity, I would feel like I’ve failed them.

    I’m not saying this is easy – one of my daughters is a bottomless eater, and there is a lot of obesity on one side of the family – BUT it’s extremely important.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      It is one of our most important roles because it sets the tone for the rest of their lives. I don’t want parents to feel guilty but to feel empowered that they can change habits starting today. Although it is not easy, we as parents can say no when our kids ask for junk and refuse to bring junk food into the house.

      Congratulations to you on deliberately setting out to get your children on a healthy path for life. That’s a gift they may not appreciate until much later.

  3. Mary says:

    It is so hard to see my own kids struggle with their weight because I struggle with them. I totally wish that I had never gained weight like this because I know that my kids struggle since I do.

    I’ve made a lot of changes but I take total responsbility for my actions and know they contribute to my kid’s being overweight. It’s something I struggle with but know how to make changes – it is just doing it that’s hard.

  4. Mark says:

    Fortunately my kids were not overweight even though I was/am. My wife though is a regular weight and did the cooking so that probably contributed to their being a healthy weight.

    I know that no one likes to point the finger at someone else, but the truth is that small children have no control over their food. They get everything from the adults in their lives whether it is school, home, or daycare.

    We as adults have to take responsibility and that is hard. I’m grateful my wife was in charge of their meals/food and not me.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I am glad that your wife is there to set a good example for you and the kids! It is hard to take responsibility for our own weight, and gets even harder when we feel we have contributed to our children’s weight in a negative way.

  5. Sam says:

    It’s tough to say because I see some families where everyone is overweight and other families where it is just one or two. In the families among my friend circles who are overweight and the kids are overweight too, I do notice a lot of unhealthy eating behaviors going on. Lots of soda, fast food, snacky foods, etc.

    It is a terrible problem and one not easily resolved.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      It is not easily resolved, but one that can be resolved with hard work on the part of parents and kids as they get older. One of my friend’s sons had gotten a bit overweight and then he decided to try out for the football team. That got him motivated to start running, eat better, and he lost weight.

  6. Martha Zapata says:

    Oh man this hits home. When I was 250 pounds I saw my kids begin to get pudgy and a bit more pudgy. Even their doctor said something. That really was motivating for me to change what I was doing for them and somewhat for me.

    I got them involved in more sports/outdoor activities, stopped buying soda altogether, and we greatly stopped fast food meals. it worked and they are at a healthier weight now. Me? I haven’t quite gotten there but i’m trying.

  7. Susan Kewer says:

    My family growing up was thin and I gained weight as an adult. My kids are very small now and at a good weight but this makes me have a wake-up call. I do not want to be the one to feel guilty over their weight if they get overweight as they grow. I need to be the one setting the best example for them.

  8. Debra says:

    Blackhuff, I’m curious, does your son’s school sell sweets and soda. I was surprised at the blowback when the nutritional guidelines were,changed for the schools towards healthier eating. There was lots of grumbling about the federal gov’mnt telling us what we could feed our kids, communists taking over, blah, blah.

    • Janis says:

      A little of both, but I’m thinking the environment is really what tips the balance. I still remember a girl I used to know when I was younger who was big and only got bigger, with very big parents … and two super-skinny tiny little 5′ grandparents living in the same house with them. If you never knew those grandparents, you’d believe it was genetics-only, but they told a different story. I think there’s a genetic susceptibility to overeating, but the environment can really enable it. That girl’s family ate unbelievably rich food every single night — it was like Christmas dinner seven days a week.

      • Diane Carbonell says:

        I think the environment plays a huge role as well. My parents limited the treats/desserts we had and that helped my weight immensely. Once I got on my own the floodgates opened and well, we all know what happened.

  9. Caron says:

    I have given this a lot of thought. My oldest daughter tends to gain weight easily while my youngest does not. Both are at a healthy weight although not really healthy overall.

    My brother and sister-in-law are both overweight and when their daughter was little, she seemed oblivious to food in general. She would eat a few bites and then go off to play. That changed when she became a teenager and now as a senior in college, she is quite overweight.

    I think both genetics and environment play a role. If you are served rich meals on a daily basis, you will probably be overweight. That said, there are exceptions to every rule and I know people who can eat obscene amounts of food and remain rail thin.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I agree that both play a role. I have friends who are a normal weight, cook well, buy good foods but some of their kids are overweight. It really bothers the moms and sometimes they seem at a loss on what to do.

  10. Babbalou says:

    I agree that seeing children who are overweight or even obese is terribly sad. I think there are many causes (besides the obvious food in/energy output imbalance of course). Parents don’t have the energy to cook properly or may not know how. Fast food/prepared foods are easy. Children and parents both spend too much time looking at screens, too little time being active. I could go on and on. I grew up in the 1950’s and it was very uncommon to see overweight people, at least where I lived. Mothers were mostly home but even those who worked made dinners for their families. There weren’t any fast food restaurants and not so much prepared foods in the stores as I recall. People had big gardens and raised a lot of vegetables. Families went for walks after dinner. Families had just one car, children went everywhere on their bikes. In our house we were allowed to watch Saturday morning cartoons and that was it. There weren’t so many TV programs back then and of course there weren’t any other screens. Times have certainly changed. I think there’s a critical mass that’s shifted -so many people have unhealthy habits that it seems normal. I refused to let my boys play Little League baseball after a friend whose kids participated complained that they ate from the drive thru 4 nights a week in order to get the kids to the games and the practices on time. I refused to do this (and my son is still irritated about it – but he’s healthy and trim and training for a triathlon so I’m not feeling guilty). The point is that when I was a kid, there would have been time to feed the children at home before practice because there was no alternative.Today parents and children both see so many overweight people that they tend to think it’s the norm. Studies have shown that a very high percentage of obese children have parents who think their weight is normal.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      It was uncommon for me growing up in the late 60’s and 70’s to see overweight kids or adults. Very uncommon. We were more active and there wasn’t that much on television to hold our attention so we did other things.

      Times definitely have changed. I too know a lot of people who feel trapped into eating fast food many nights each week because of sports schedules, play rehearsals, etc. That has to be very stressful. Good for you on drawing the line with your son and look where he is now!

  11. Marc says:

    More often than not the answer is usually yes. Obese parents will produce obese children, because children imitate the behaviors of their parents. There are the exceptions I am aware of where two thin parents raised two children who are obese as adults. The parents eat healthy 90 percent of the time, whereas the kids rebelled and overate the foods that make us fat. It’s complicated.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      Children do tend to imitate behavior and small kids don’t shop for themselves or pick their own foods.

      It is a very, very complex situation and one that I fear has long-term health implications for our country and our health care.

  12. Kim says:

    This is a topic that has bothered me for a long time! My sister and her husband are both obese (although they have both been working very hard this year to lose weight!!) and I worry about their son. He is only 4 now and not overweight so hopefully the changes they are making now will become permanent and they will all have a healthier lifestyle.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I hope that they are changing at just the perfect time for their son. My oldest was about 7 when I reached my goal weight and I’m so grateful that I did not wait longer because I fear my bad choices would have trickled down to my kids as they got older.

  13. Contemplative Fitness says:

    I wrote a somewhat related essay a few weeks ago, inasmuch as I do see changes coming, but they are slow to be seen.

    Yes, I cringe when I see a child chug a soda, or hit the 10-meat buffet at the local casino. BUT, my heart rose a few weeks ago when I was in a Jack-In-The-Box (getting an iced tea) and I heard a mother and son discussing food choices based on the calorie count which was on the menu panel. This would not have happened 10 years ago.

    Progress is on the way, I think, but it’s a slow turning…

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I think there is progress being made in the right direction, but it is a slow progression. The abundance of junk and the attitude that “one won’t hurt you” makes it difficult for parents and kids.

  14. L says:

    It is hard to reverse what has been set as a course of action, but it’s not impossible, right? I need to know it’s not–that change is possible and better health a reality for those willing to pursue it. We know better, and we do better. I know my kids missed out on a lot when they were growing up. I was too fat and unhealthy to do much with them. 🙁

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      Absolutely not impossible to reverse course and that is what is great about weight loss. Sure it is hard, but in most cases, we can reverse our weight gain and live a much healthier and more active life.

      I’m sorry that you struggled when your kids were growing up. I know what that was like and it was not a good feeling.

  15. Marz says:

    My dad was maybe just a little overweight, my mom grew up normal weight but became overweight at some point after starting to have kids, and might have crept up into the low end of obese for a while. Of the 4 of us my sister was mostly in the normal range as was one brother though now in his 40s he struggles a bit, the other brother was always big even as a kid, and is very obese now and has other probably unrelated issues. I was always a little heavy as a kid (though less so than I thought), now in my 40s I’m obese, though pretty active, and my weight is going down a bit after being in the same 5 lb range for nearly 20 years (which is at least not upward).

    Even though my parents weren’t specifically or consistently obese, I think the environment we were raised in resulted in some weirdness about food. Most of the time the food at home was quite bland and not well cooked (ie gray meat, overcooked canned veggies) and we never got any input and rarely got things we actually liked. Things like cookies, pepsi, ice cream, were big treats..the purchase strictly controlled by our father and then quickly consumed by my brothers if I didn’t get mine right away. We sometimes got pizza or burgers (< 1x a week) but almost never went out to restaurants.

    Though these things being treats might sound like a good thing it kind of backfired, and when I got older and realized I could get these things when *I* wanted and no one could control my food any longer, I kind of swung the other way for a while and ate too much junk. These days I don't have a lot of junk at home but restaurants are still an issue. I have a terrible time convincing myself every single restaurant outing isn't a big special occasion which I have to "make count" by eating far too many tasty things. Even though I can go out whenever I want now. I really have to pay attention to avoid going into auto-pilot WOOHOO TREATS mode. I'm not willing to give up restaurants entirely, I'm single and too many social occasions involve eating out.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I think this would make a great topic for a blog post Marz and I’m going to write it this week.

      It sounds like your family was very typical. My husband’s mom could not cook very well (or maybe just didn’t like to cook) and they rarely had fresh vegetables or homecooked meals that he loved. He downed treats when they were available and I think even now he associates that kind of food with a reward.

      It sounds like you are on the right track with your weight – good for you!

  16. Linda says:

    This is a very tough but also very important topic to cover and you did it very well Diane! I am relieved beyond belief that my son does not have a weight problem. If anything, he needs to gain some weight. Like you, I did a lot of my unhealthy eating privately but it showed obviously. One day, my son asked me if I was ok and whether there was something wrong with my weight as I was gaining rapidly. I could not hide it any longer.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      That is such a heartbreaking question to be asked by your child isn’t it? My daughter would ask me “Why are you so big mommy?” I tried to laugh it off but inside I cried. . .

  17. Meghan Rich says:

    I am 28 an have never been obese and my mother was obese my entire life… I’ve been overweight twice in my life, once soon after marriage and once after first baby but have lost the weight and remained thin. I honestly feel the direct reason I am so healthy and fitis bc of my mom. I love my mom and she is amazing yet I saw her struggle with simple things like shopping, playing with us, ect…I just want to break the cycle. I am sure ill make mistakes for my chdren to learn from, I’m by no means perfect, but this is one area I watched and learned and decided to make a different choice. Side note, my dad is very active and not overweight…( I wonder if that played into me being a healthy adult as well?)

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I bet the fact that your dad was active did play a role in your weight just as your mom’s struggles did. I often wonder what my kids would be like now if I still struggled with my weight. I hope they would have taken your attitude and determined not to struggle as I (or your mother) did.

  18. Kyra says:

    It’s funny, because I’m of two minds about this. The rational side of me absolutely wants to show good and healthy behaviors for my children to mimic and get comfortable with. And to a very large extent that is exactly what I have accomplished (both kids are healthy, involved in sports, love healthy unprocessed foods, etc.) But the other side of it is that I still struggle with my weight, and piling on the accusatory condemnation of others and the responsibility that I need to be thin “for everyone else” makes me extremely angry. It’s hard when you are working hard, working on yourself, and people want to dump even more on you and tell you why you’re such a failure as a human being because of your body fat percentage.

    It doesn’t mean that we’re not responsible for our children’s access to healthy food and portions, as well as activities. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t get healthy so we not only show them how to take care of themselves appropriately, but also so we’re here for the long haul. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t make sense. It’s just frustrating having this piled on top of all the major reasons bearing down on us already.

    I think that there is a fine line between motivation and beating someone down with all the reasons why. Understanding our food-culture and how to create a healthy environment for everyone is extremely important, but I think the approach in order to convince others of that is just as important. I don’t think it took any great leap of science to say if a kid is obese, it’s likely the parents are too – as your environment and choices are likely to breed whatever body you’re now sitting in. It’s the rare individual that is the opposite of that. I just feel like there has to be a better way, because sometimes it is in how the information is pushed out there.

    Like I said, two minds. 🙂

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I hate it when people criticize because they have not walked in our shoes. My thin friends were “well meaning” but it did not help me more forward at all. Instead it made me feel worse about myself. Congratulations on your kids loving great food and being active – that is such a gift to give them as they move forward into adulthood.

      There is a fine line between motivation and making someone feel defeated. I never make a remark about any person’s weight unless they ask, and even then, I tread very carefully.

  19. Jody - Fit at 55 says:

    Sww akk too often… the parents show the kids their lifestyle, their food etc… I think it is tough going if the parents are obese & have unhealthy habits. I got heavy due to bad food in the house – even though we were all active – too much of the wrong stuff…

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      It often is a lifestyle issue, but there are definitely exceptions. It is hard if the parents are obese because they often do not know how to help their kids because they don’t know how to help themselves.

  20. Karen P says:

    I was an obese kid in a normal weight house. My emotional eating started young. It was not fun to be overweight in elementary school. It was not my parents fault. It was not my fault. I don’t blame them, and I don’t blame myself. I do take responsibility as fully functioning adult to work out my problems and figure out what will keep me in a healthy weight and healthy mind set. No magic fairy did the work. I had to become good at solving my own problems. I had to stop buying and bringing in foods that were keeping me overweight to my family. This was key.

    Between bad science ( healthy whole grains!? and cereals-not for me) and big food (sure… Coke says you sit too much- drink responsibly), and calories in-calories out (eat whatever you want as long as your calories/points are in range) it’s a perfect storm-IMO. It did start with food quality, a mindset that I promised I would not stop uncovering root causes until I was in recovery for a long time, and a whole lot of experimenting. I would not expect kids to figure this mess out unless another adult was an advocate of buying, cooking, and providing whole, real foods. There are so few adults that get it, that live it, and teach their kids, but it is growing from a grass roots level. I applaud those who do get it and walk the talk.

    It starts at home with the food that is purchased and cooked. It extends to the food that is purchased away from home- IMO.

    Everyone wanted me (the fat kid) to be thin (me too!) nobody had the answers. A line a mile long of tsk-tsking people. Stunk. It also was no fun as an overweight adult. Dismissing that line of people wanting me to loose weight is one the sweet things about weight maintenance. Most of the “disapprovers” are now overweight themselves. I feel for them. It stinks. The good news is that it is not too late for my daughter to model my new normal food and cooking. That makes me very happy.

    Getting healthy yourself is one of the best things you can do for yourself, the rest will follow, over time for the kiddos. All my 2 cents. My time as an obese child and on and off as an adult gives me a perspective on both. Not everyone will see it this way.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      Thank you for sharing all of that Karen. You did work very hard and it totally shows!

      You are right – it is never too late whether for our kids or for ourselves. Thanks again.

  21. Meghan says:

    you have inspired me to start my own fitness blog. Even if know one reads it, its a great way to talk about things that have worked for me….Thanks Diane. Love your blog

  22. Charlene says:

    This is a great article. I think eating habits are learned. If you come from a family who eats a lot of unhealthy foods, the chances of you having the same habits are greatly increased. We have to teach our kids what portions and types of foods to eat.

  23. Leanne says:

    I believe that it can play a big part in a childs life if their parents are obese. If a parent only buys junk food then all a child can eat at home is junk food. I feel sorry for these children and the obese parents should think of others and not their belly.

  24. Lori says:

    I am fat. My husband use to be fat (has kept his weight off for 6 years) but our kids are not. Even though I am fat I am make a conscious effort to eat right and exercise. We rarely buy soda, juice or junk food. Yes, obviously I have a problem with portion control. Despite this I try and teach my kids the right way. So far, so good. They are both normal size.

    I think whatever the parents do, the kids will do. So many people buy a ton of processed food, eat at fast food restaurants and never exercise. I think these are the reasons why so many people are fat.

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