Only-children more likely to be obese, study finds

PHILADELPHIA — Those of us with brothers or sisters have all wished we were an only-child at one point or another. The grass may seem greener as we shout at our siblings to stop using all the hot water, but a new study finds that multiple-child families are more inclined to make healthier dietary decisions than single-child households. Consequently, researchers say that only-children are more likely to be obese than children with siblings.

Only-children, referred to by the research team as “singletons,” typically experience less healthy family eating habits, drink choices, and an overall poorer diet on both weekdays and weekends in comparison to other adolescents. As to why this is the case, it is theorized that the hectic nature of having multiple children under one roof forces parents to become better organized, plan out their meals, and eat out less often.

“Nutrition professionals must consider the influence of family and siblings to provide appropriate and tailored nutrition education for families of young children,” says lead author Dr. Chelsea L. Kracht, who conducted the study alongside Dr. Susan Sisson at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, in a release. “Efforts to help all children and families establish healthy eating habits and practices must be encouraged.”

Self-reported data from both mothers and school teachers was compiled for the study in the form of daily food-logs. Mothers kept track of their children’s diets for a period of three days (two weekdays and one weekend day,) and teachers took note of food children were eating while at school during weekdays. Each mother also filled out a questionnaire designed to evaluate their family’s usual dietary and beverage choices.

Researchers also noted that mothers of only-children are more likely to be obese themselves. To that end, maternal BMI was found to be a more accurate predictor of a child’s BMI than whether or not they may have siblings. However, maternal BMI did not seem to contribute to a child’s overall eating patterns, but did show a connection to increased consumption of empty calories.

The study’s authors determined that time spent away from home, such as attending school, sports camps, etc., did not significantly influence children’s eating patterns. This led them to conclude that eating pattern differences among children are largely coming from within the home. Examples of household differences would be how often a family eats in front of the TV (eating practices), or the amount of sugary drinks they typically consume.

“Healthier eating behaviors and patterns may result from household-level changes rather than peer exposure, as peer exposure is also present in away-from-home care,” Dr. Kracht comments.

Dr. Kracht is already continuing to research this matter, focusing on how family dynamics influence children’s eating, sleeping, and exercise habits in reference to obesity rates.

The study is published in Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.