5 habits for moms that help prevent childhood obesity

Claire McCarthy, MD

Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

We are in the midst of an obesity epidemic in the United States. Currently 40% of adults and almost 20% of children are obese. The childhood obesity numbers particularly worry us, because the effects of obesity accumulate over time. A child who is obese is more likely to develop diabetes, heart disease, and other complications of obesity earlier in life than someone who develops obesity in adulthood.

When we think about preventing obesity in children, we naturally tend to think of the children themselves. We think about doing everything we can to be sure they follow healthy lifestyle habits, in particular eating a healthy diet and getting exercise. This is obviously important, but a new study suggests that the lifestyle habits of mothers are important too — perhaps even more important.

Using data from two long-running studies, the Nurses’ Health Study and the Growing Up Today Study, researchers looked at associations between the lifestyle habits of mothers and the weights of their children, and found that when mothers followed five health habits, their children were a startling 75% less likely to be obese.

The habits were:

1.  Staying at a healthy weight. To figure out if a person’s weight is healthy, we use the body mass index (BMI), a calculation using height and weight. Having a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 is considered healthy.

2.  Getting at least 150 minutes a week of moderate or vigorous physical activity.

3.  Not smoking (preferably never smoking).

4.  Consuming some alcohol, but less than 15 grams a day. Interestingly, consuming some alcohol was better than consuming none. For reference, a “standard drink” of 14 g of alcohol would be 5 ounces of wine or 12 ounces of beer.

5.  Eating a healthy diet. The researchers used the Healthy Eating Index, and defined a healthy diet as being in the top 40%. People in the top 40% eat more vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids — and eat less red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, trans fats, and sodium.

There was no association between a healthy diet in the mother and prevention of obesity in their children, which was surprising, as you’d think the diet of the mother would affect the diet of the child. But when you start putting the habits together, you start to see the benefits. Mothers who had a healthy diet, got exercise, and had low to moderate alcohol intake cut the risk of obesity in their children by about 25%. Add in not smoking, and you get up to 40%. Add in staying at a healthy weight, and you get to 75%.

What was also very interesting is that the mother’s habits had a bigger effect than the child’s habits when it came to preventing childhood obesity.

It’s hard to know for sure what exactly explains these findings. Certainly role-modeling, and family habits, are important. People who smoke are more likely to be depressed, and drinking low to moderate amounts of alcohol daily is associated with a lower risk of anxiety and depression; as depression is linked with obesity, perhaps these habits help by lowering the risk of depression.

Whatever the explanation, it’s worth a try. At the very least, living by these habits keeps mothers healthy — and if it keeps children healthy too, that’s even better.

Follow me on Twitter @drClaire


  1. Cris Becker

    I’m confused. Isn’t eating a healthy diet the maternal habit listed as number 5? And aren’t the habits listed ones that are correlated with obesity prevention in children? So why does the paragraph after number 5 state that there is no correlation between the mother’s diet and the child’s weight? Even the rest of that paragraph seems to imply that the mother’s diet makes a significant difference. Is there a typo, or am I just missing something?

  2. Peter Faulk

    Item #4 – Careful – Alcohol is a level one carcinogen, it causes cancers in 7 internal organs, breast and skin cancers. (ACS) It kills over 88,000 Annually in the US – Over 3 Million Globally – every year. One in ten working age adults overall in the USA (CDC). Alcohol also disturbs sleep, is a depressant and in some triggers a chemical addiction, escalating into serious troubles (just like some can’t eat peanut butter – some can’t drink safely). I would be extremely hesitant in suggesting daily intake of Diluted Rocket fuel (Ethanol) based on an incomplete study. Everything else – Spot on – and yes obesity is a huge issue. #soberworldorg

  3. Darin Flynn

    It is amazing that there was no correlation between a mother’s healthy diet and the obesity in a child. Food preferences and eating habits in children are difficult to modify for sure. Considering the strength of association with the other factors, it seems that setting examples of healthy living, or role-modeling, would be a plausible explanation. I believe this indirectly substantiates the over-attribution of genetic components to obesity commonly seen in media. Of course genetics plays a role, but not much. Thanks for reporting on this important finding.

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