Parent Behaviour Key to Preventing Obesity in Children

Daily demands of parenting outweigh concerns about diet and exercise

Story by Marisa Catapang, a U of G student writer with SPARK (Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge)

Prof. Jess Haines

More emphasis on general parenting skills such as establishing routines, rather than diet and exercise, could help tackle childhood obesity, says Prof. Jess Haines, Family Relations and Applied Nutrition. Results from her pilot study show that although parents of preschool children are concerned about diet and exercise, they’re even more concerned about managing the day-to-day demands of parenting.

To help bridge the gap between the kind of information parents want and what health professionals want to give, Haines is spearheading the “Parents and Tots Together” (PTT) program. She’s investigating what motivates parents to engage in positive, health-promoting behaviours.

With a four-year old and an 18-month old of her own, Haines empathizes with the needs of parents.  “We could talk until we’re blue in the face about obesity, but if our message just doesn’t register with parents, we’re not going to have behaviour change,” says Haines.

With a global estimate of 42 million children under the age of five being overweight, childhood obesity has become a leading public health concern. If left unchecked, it increases the risk of developing various chronic diseases in adulthood, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Haines insists that the goal of PTT isn’t to undermine the importance of diet and exercise. Rather, she expects that parents will receive a dual benefit: strategies that work for improving their child’s general behaviours as well as their specific weight-related behaviours.

According to Haines, parents can use several measures to help their child develop healthy eating behaviours. These include: eating meals together; setting a good example by eating a variety of foods; deciding where, when and what their child eats, but letting the child decide how much to eat; letting children practice serving themselves; and offering new foods many times. She says it can take up to 12 tries before children accept a new food.

Following these general parenting tips will establish a positive mealtime routine and encourage healthy weight-related behaviours, such as eating a variety of foods and paying attention to feelings of hunger and fullness.

PTT is adapted from the Chicago Parent Program for general parenting skills that was initially piloted in Boston with a group of 18 parent-child pairs while Haines was completing graduate work at Harvard University. She is now beginning a broader study with 180 families from the Boston area and plans to investigate the feasibility and acceptability of PTT within Canada.