Childhood obesity rates are affected by mothers’ mental health

Published 5:43 pm Thursday, December 5, 2019


The Advocate-Messenger

A new report indicates parents’ mental health can play a significant role in their child’s physical health. 

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The report found a mother or father’s mental health are associated with their child’s weight, and parents with poor mental health are more likely to have children with obesity. 

The study uses data from 14,733 children between the ages of 10 and 17 in the 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health.

“Among high‐income families, positive mental health of either the mother or the father was associated with lower odds of overweight or obesity,” according to the report published in The Journal of Rural Health. “In multivariable models, the association between positive maternal mental health and lower odds of child overweight/obesity persisted after adjustment for family food security, child physical activity and child screen time. For paternal mental health, the association was not significant after adjusting for these covariates.”

Kentucky Health News reports, “The mental health status of the parent was determined by this question: ‘In general, how is your mental or emotional health?’ Those who answered ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’ were placed in the ‘positive mental health’ category and those who answered ‘good,’ ‘fair’ or ‘poor’ were not.”

“Our findings highlight the need to address maternal mental health in rural settings in order to address the physical health of the child,” the researchers wrote. “We show that mothers’ mental health (in rural settings) remains associated with child weight among high‐income rural families despite adjustment for known individual, child‐level risk factors for obesity.”

Childhood obesity is an ever-increasing problem in the U.S., especially in Kentucky, which ranks third in the nation for childhood obesity. 

In 2017-18, 4.8 million children ages 10 to 17 in the U.S. had obesity, according to the National Survey of Children’s Health.

The 2015-16 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found 18.5 percent of children in the U.S. ages 2 to 19 had obesity.

In the U.S., childhood obesity alone is estimated to cost $14 billion annually in direct health expenses.

According to the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, 14.8 percent of high school students had obesity and an additional 15.6 percent were overweight. 

A report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released in October dug deeper into Kentucky’s childhood obesity problem, finding one in five Kentucky children between 10 and 17 are obese.

According to the report, the state’s obesity rate rose to 20.8 percent in 2017-18 from 19.3 percent in 2016-17.

“Obesity is calculated through body mass index, essentially a ratio of height to weight. A child is considered obese if the BMI is at or above the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex; children are considered overweight at or above the 85th percentile,” Kentucky Health News reports. “About 40 percent of the state’s school-aged children are either overweight or obese, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.”

Childhood obesity also matters because children and teens who are obese will likely grow up to be obese as adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Kentucky ranks fifth for adult obesity, with 36.6 percent of its adults obese.

The CDC also reports children who have obesity are more likely to have high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease; increased risk of impaired glucose tolerance, insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes; breathing problems, such as asthma and sleep apnea; joint problems and musculoskeletal discomfort; fatty liver disease, gallstones and gastro-esophageal reflux (i.e., heartburn).

Childhood obesity is also related to psychological problems such as anxiety and depression; low self-esteem and lower self-reported quality of life; and social problems such as bullying and stigma, according to the CDC. 

Obesity is a disease that is plaguing our country.

So if the mental health of parents has a direct correlation to childhood obesity, this is an indication Americans need to put more focus on their mental health. 

One way to make mental health a bigger focus in our country is to find ways to end the stigma associated with mental illness. 

Mental illness is common in the U.S., with nearly one in five adults living with a mental illness. That means we all likely know someone who is dealing with a mental illness of some type. And the prevalence of mental illness is higher among women (22.3 percent), the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports, than among men (15.1 percent). 

Much work has been done in recent years to break down the stigma, but more work needs to be done. There should be no shame associated with mental illness, and people should feel safe talking about it and seeking medical or other types of treatment. 

With so many Americans experiencing mental illness, it is critical we continue to make accessing mental health care easy. Insurance companies should be required to cover mental health services at the same rates as other medical care, and communities should look at ways to invite more mental health care options into their area. 

As this study shows, we need to particularly look at ways to support women who are struggling with their mental health, especially mothers who have a direct correlation to the health of the children in our country. By doing so, we can improve the mental and physical health of our nation’s young people and set them up for a brighter future. Doing so could have a positive impact on generations to come.