It's not bad enough that they leave their clothes on the floor, cost you a fortune and drive you crazy with worry.
They also may be making you fat.
So says a study appearing in the Jan. 4 online edition of the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine. Compared with adults living without children in the home, adults living with kids younger than 17, on average, take in an additional 4.9 grams of fat daily. And 1.7 grams of that additional fat is saturated fat — the artery-clogging kind of fat that abounds in many meat and dairy products, processed foods and meals taken out from fast-food joints and eaten in restaurants.
The damage that children appear to wreak upon the diets of those who care for them piles up faster than the laundry. In a single week, the additional saturated fat intake of an adult living with kids amounts almost to that in an entire pepperoni pizza. And the litany of dietary offenses committed regularly by parents and guardians reads like a nutritionist's nightmare: Adults who live with children, the study found, "had significantly higher odds of frequently eating pizza, cheese, beef, salty snacks, cakes and cookies, ice cream, bacon/sausage/processed meats and peanuts."
The latest research is one of a raft of new studies that look at how family dynamics affect an individual's propensity to become overweight. As the rate of child obesity has grown, researchers increasingly have focused on how parental influences — genes, education, incomes, exercise and food choices — are passed down to children. To save a child from obesity, this line of research suggests, one must first reform her parents' diets.
The latest study, however, reverses that perspective, suggesting what the authors call "a reciprocal influence of children on adults." In consumer studies, parents routinely cite their children as key drivers of snack food choice, home menu selection and restaurant visits. Perhaps, the authors suggest, the nation's epidemic of overweight and obesity should be approached by looking at how children form their food preferences and how those preferences influence their parents' decisions about what to buy and consume.
The difference between households with children living in them and those without, suggested Davis, seems to be that in households with kids, the high-fat food choices are more likely to come in the door, making their way from there into the mouths of adults in the household. First, it would seem, parents and guardians give in to their kids' appeals for high-fat foods. And then, not surprisingly, they give into temptation.
"Kids can be very persuasive" in coaxing their parents and guardians into buying the fatty, sugary and salty foods that are overwhelmingly marketed to them, Davis says. "We've all been there. But as parents, we have to think twice about buying these foods for our kids," he adds. "That they can make kids fat and start them down the road toward obesity is reason enough. They can also be very tempting for us as adults."
By Melissa Healy