Heavier Kids: Blame Working Moms...or Lazy Dads?

A new study of 900 kids reports a correlation between the number of hours a woman works outside the home and the BMI* of her children.

"For a third grader of average height, the increase in BMI was equivalent to an extra one and a half to two pounds over what that child would normally gain in a year," study author Taryn W. Morrissey said in an interview published in Business Week. The story ran under the headline, "The More Mom Works, the Heavier Her Kids Get: Study."**

Two extra pounds a year may not sound like much, but it could add up to a significant weight gain over the course of a childhood.

The idea that American kids get fat because women work outside the home is not new. The death of home cooking is often cited as the proximate cause.

All other things being equal, cooking less tends to lead to eating more and gaining weight. Prepared foods and restaurant meals tend to be higher in calories than the same dishes cooked from scratch at home. Many studies have found a correlation between eating out and gaining weight.

Besides, a lot of the most convenient foods to eat out are among the most labor intensive to concoct in a home kitchen. French fries account for a quarter of the average child's fruit and vegetable intake. Yet, most Americans would rarely eat fries if they had to scrub, cut, soak, par fry, re-fry, salt and drain their own potatoes.

“You want Americans to eat less? I have the diet for you," the irascible marketing expert Harry Balzer told food maven Pollan, "It’s short, and it’s simple. Here’s my diet plan: Cook it yourself. That’s it. Eat anything you want — just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.”

Balzer's curt advice is based on years studying how the food industry has changed American diets. His research shows that Americans have become more dependent on convenience foods across the board. It's not just women with children.

For a detailed review of the evidence that we eat more, and worse, when we cook less, see economist Barry Popkin's excellent book, The World Is Fat.

Let's assume that American kids are getting fatter because families are cooking less and making up the difference with high calorie restaurant meals and prepared foods. Inevitably, the media frame this story in terms of working women aren't doing now.

Yet, married working women with children already do significantly more housework than their working husbands, including cooking and grocery shopping. Working wives clock an average of 19 hours of housework a week, compared to 10 hours a week for working husbands. Women who work full-time do more housework than their full-time employed husbands. Men tend to work slightly longer hours, which may account for some of this discrepancy.

Even so, U.S. men report spending 38 more minutes a day on leisure activities than their female counterparts. Thirty-eight minutes is plenty of time to cook a simple, healthy dinner for a family. I couldn't find data to directly compare leisure time between working husbands and working wives with children, but my guess is that husbands have more free time.

Stories reflexively linking working women and the death of home cooking let men off the hook. The tacit assumption is that if cooking doesn't get done, it's the woman who shirked her duty. A more neutral way of looking at the same evidence is that the cooking didn't get done. The next question is: Who might have extra time to do it?***

Gender roles have changed for paid work, they should also be up for renegotiation when it comes to cooking.

Dads are just as responsible for the well-being of their children as moms. If any one group of parents needs to get back in the kitchen, it's working dads, not working moms.


*Don't complain about BMI. Just don't. I know, it's hardly gold standard of individual health or fitness, but it's fine for answering basic questions about height and weight in populations.

**In this post, my goal is not to endorse or critique this specific study. My focus is on the way the media shoehorn these kinds of findings into a narrative that blames mothers and tacitly absolves fathers.

***On average. And again, we're talking about trends, not individual families. I know plenty of men who pull their domestic weight as fathers and husbands.

[Photo credit: limonada, Creative Commons.]

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