Contrary to widely-held assumptions, children are not more at risk of becoming obese if their mother works full-time, according to new research.
The study was conducted in 2007-2008 by 13 researchers in Europe among 16,000 children aged two to nine years from Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Spain and Sweden.
The conclusions were published in the Journal of Health Economics in an article, “Maternal employment and childhood obesity – A European perspective".
The findings are part of the EU-financed IDEFICS project which aims to support research into child obesity.
“Our study shows that it doesn’t matter if mothers work or not. Mothers who work should therefore not feel guilty about their children,” Wencke Gwozdz, who’s professor in consumer behavior and sustainability at Copenhagen Business School, told the Danish newspaper Politiken.
Obesity increases the likelihood of various diseases, particularly heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obstructive sleep apnea, certain types of cancer, and osteoarthritis.
In the US, mothers who have a full-time job have frequently been accused of being one of the reasons behind the obesity epidemic among children. Working mothers have less time to spend preparing healthy meals for their children, the assumption goes, or ensure they exercise regularly.
The article challenged that view, saying European children with working mothers don’t have a greater waist circumference or higher percentage of body fat than others.
"Our analysis provides little evidence for any association between maternal employment and childhood obesity, diet or physical activity," the article says.
The researchers suggested that working mothers tended to use their money to take time off and take care of their children.
“Mothers don’t have less quality time with their children when they work. It remains stable. They can afford to have a cleaner, a dish washer and a car which give them time to spend with their children. The family can afford to buy healthy food and the children can be driven to activities and training so that they don’t sit in front of the TV,” Gwozdz said.
Public support for childcare
Working mothers also tend to be more educated and have better knowledge about healthy eating. This is the big difference between Europe and the US, Gwozdz stated.
Research has shown that there is a link between child obesity and working mothers in Britain and the US, as opposed to continental Europe, due to different lifestyles and structure of society.
“Working mothers in the US and the UK have a harder time than in continental Europe. They receive less public support for childcare and the childcare they get is of lower quality than in many European countries,” Gwozdz said.
“The Americans also have a different lifestyle and typically serve larger portions and when it’s there on the plate, you eat it,” she added.
The researcher emphasised that it’s important to look at the childcare institutions in order to combat obesity among children.
“The question is not whether women should stay at home or not. Instead, we should ask how we can improve the institutions where the children are while their mothers work. Sweden is a good example as it’s mandatory that the kindergardens and schools serve food which has to comply with certain rules for a healthy meal,” Gwozdz said.