It’s unfortunate, but true: parenting may be hazardous to your health, at least according to new research that shows that mothers consume more calories and get less physical activity than women with no kids.
In the latest knock against parenthood, researchers from the University of Minnesota looked at 838 women and 682 men and concluded that having children — particularly for moms — is linked to an array of negative outcomes. Mothers had a higher body-mass index and didn’t eat as healthily as childless women, chugging more sugary drinks and eating more total calories and saturated fat. (More on Time.com: Babies Who Start Solids Too Early More Likely To Be Obese)
Both moms and dads exercised less than their child-free counterparts, but in a completely unfair twist, fathers’ BMI didn’t differ from that of men without children.
Parents are more apt to not take good care of their health at a time when they really need to be modeling healthy behavior for their miniature doppelgangers. That, of course, is easier said than done. The pressures of parenting are relentless, and sometimes it’s easier to stick a frozen pizza in the microwave than fuss with coaxing kids to whole grains and leafy greens.
“All parents can relate to the idea of demands and trade-offs,” says Jerica Berge, lead researcher and an assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Minnesota. She’s also the mother of a 2-year-old and 6-year-old. “We’ve all felt that we want to cook a healthy meal, but we’ve got to get out of here to make that appointment. We all relate to that feeling of not being able to pay attention to your health because of parenting demands.” (More on Time.com: Did Your Doctor Call You Fat? You Should Thank Her For It)
In the study, published online Monday in the journal Pediatrics, moms got less exercise per week, 4.5 hours of physical activity compared with the 6 hours that non-mothers got. The American Heart Association recommends 30 minutes of exercise per day most days of the week.
Mothers also ate more calories, 2,360 compared with childless women’s 1,992. “The difference between those is significant,” says Berge. The research didn’t focus on what the difference might be attributed to, but Berge didn’t disagree when this reporter suggested those 368 calories could easily result from grazing on children’s leftovers.
Researchers found that mothers and non-mothers ate similar quantities of nutritious foods — whole grains, fruits, vegetables — but moms also ate more unhealthy foods. “We think moms, though trying to model by eating fruits and vegetables, might be having a conflict with time demands so instead of opting to cook a healthy meal, they’re making chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese,” says Berge. “They’re probably eating them with their kids too, so they are eating high-fat foods at the same time they’re eating healthy foods, and it kind of undoes the healthy foods.” (More on Time.com: Toddlers’ Junk-Food Diet May Lead to Lower IQ)
From a public-health perspective, Berge says it’s critical to intervene so that the behavior is not perpetuated from generation to generation.
Pediatricians, for example, address a child’s dietary intake at well-child visits; that might be a good time to ask about the family’s eating habits, too. If everyone’s dining daily on pizza and corn dogs, the pediatrician might offer a gentle reality check.
If time is the problem, involve the kids, coercing them to set the table and getting them involved in the prep work. Figure out how to serve healthy foods quickly; putting baby carrots and dip on a plate takes no more time than setting out chips.
What constitutes physical activity may also need some rethinking. It doesn’t just have to be working the elliptical at the gym. Moms, don’t sit on the bench at the park; kick a ball around with your kids. Choose stairs over elevators. Walk to school. “Incorporate physical activity into time with your kids because it’s probably not going to happen on its own,” says Berge.