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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Thursday's Psychology Trivia: Could Your Parents' Marital Status Predict Your Weight or Lead to Eating Disorders?


Thought for the Day: It's time for Thursday's Psychology Trivia. This week an article about a recent study caught my eye. It has to do with how marital status of parents can impact on their children's eating habits. Since the eating habits we form in childhood tend to stick with us for life, this study is clearly not trivial. Here's the question:
A recent study of third graders found:
a) Children of divorced parents had a 54% higher prevalence of general overweight (including obesity)
b) Children whose parents never married were 20% more likely to be underweight 
c) There was an 89% higher prevalence of abdominal obesity compared to children of married parents
d) Boys with divorced parents were especially at much higher risk of being overweight than boys with married parents.
e) Girls with married parents had a higher risk of having eating disorders than girls whose parents never married
f) a), c) & d)
g) b) & e)
h) all of the above
Do you think you know the answer? read on to see what they found... 



The answer is f). 

A nationally representative sample of 3166 eight year old third graders in Norway (1537 girls and 1629 boys) participated in the 2010 study which was published on June 4, 2014

Divorce appears to be related to a very high incidence of obesity in children. Boys appear to be at the highest risk with 63% higher occurrence of obesity among sons of divorced couples. Although correlation does not prove causality, the researchers posed some guesses as to why being overweight occurs in children of divorced parents. One possible explanation for the findings was that in single parent households there is less time for cooking. After divorce, they may rely more on convenient, ready-to-eat foods, which may be fattier. They also cite financial constraints leading to purchasing cheaper foods which tend to be less healthy. Certainly, financial and time factors play a part, however, the third possible explanation seems like the more likely culprit to me. Divorce leads to an increase in emotional distress for both parents and children. The emotional stress surely may lead to emotional eating. Divorce also leads to depression in children. This could lead to a decrease in physical activity which might explain the tendency among children of divorce to gain weight. 

The researchers gave no explanation as to why boys are at a higher risk. My guess is two fold. First, boys are less well adept at speaking about their feelings than girls, so that turning to food may be an easier option for them. In addition, boys tend to be more physically active than girls under normal circumstances. If sons of divorce are feeling depressed and therefore getting less physical exercise than their male peers, it would explain a higher tendency to put on weight. Unfortunately, this study did not control for physical activity or how much time had elapsed since the divorce.

If you are a single divorced parent and notice that your children are gaining weight or leaning towards obesity, pay attention. It may be a cry for help. Although it may help, it may not be enough to improve the quality of food options. If they are developing emotional eating habits the psychological issues need to be addressed. The negative impact of social isolation or ridicule for their weight may have a lasting impact on their self esteem and body image. If they are stressed or depressed and trying to eat away their sorrows, psychotherapy can help.

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