The researchers examined data of 8717 children aged between four and nine years-old from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children and revealed higher rates of overweight and obesity in girls from single-parent families. Children in single-parent households also watched more television and ate more food high in fat and sugar and less fruit and vegetables.
Deakin’s Dr Linda Byrne said while the results are confronting they shouldn’t be seen as an indication that single parents are doing a bad job.
“Parenting is a difficult job and there are extra demands when undertaking this task alone,” Dr Byrne said.
“It is important that our results are not used to judge single parents. Rather what we have found should be used to develop strategies to support families through some of the most challenging parts of parenting – what to feed the kids and how to keep them active.”
The results of the study showed little difference in the rates of overweight and obesity in boys from single-parent and dual-parent families. When it came to eating and television viewing habits, children in single-parent households ate slightly less serves of fruit and vegetables and a little more high fat foods and sugary drinks per day; and watched approximately two hours more television each week.
Dr Byrne said that while the actual difference in number of serves of food and hours of television watching was relatively small, it suggested that there is an additive effect at work.
“This might mean that small changes in parental behavior could result in better outcomes for their children,” she said.
“While the overall results for eating and television viewing are consistent with other studies, we were surprised to find that only girls from single-parent families were overrepresented in the overweight category.
“This might be because girls are not as active as boys. Mother’s perception of neighbourhood safety has been shown to influence weight in girls. If single mothers perceive their neighbourhood to be unsafe, they may be less likely to encourage their daughters to go outside and exercise.”
The results of this study are published online in the International Journal of Pediatric Obesity.