Like Mother Like Daughter? Say It Isn't So...

Oct 04, 2010, 10:42 ET from HealthyWomen

New survey reveals majority of women underestimate their influence on children in combating the cycle of obesity

RED BANK, N.J., Oct. 4 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Despite rising awareness of America's obesity epidemic and the secondary health risks associated with excess weight, new research released today by HealthyWomen (HW) shows that while the majority of women believe a parent's obesity has an influence on a child's risk of becoming obese (87%), surprisingly only one-quarter (28%) of women surveyed assign the responsibility to themselves. In reality, studies have shown stronger correlation over time for mother-child obesity compared with father-child obesity.

And the influence starts early. Only 11% of women in HealthyWomen's WomenTALK survey realized that a child's risk of becoming obese more than doubles if the mother is obese during her first trimester of pregnancy. According to recent research, this impacts roughly one in five women that are obese when they become pregnant. Forty-six percent of respondents to the HealthyWomen survey were unsure of the effect of maternal obesity on the risk of a child becoming obese. Yet, studies show the risk for newborn complications, including long-term complications like obesity, is even higher for severely obese women with a BMI of 35 or more.

BMI (body mass index) is an established measure utilized by physicians and health experts to determine weight status and is calculated from a person's height and weight. Obesity is defined as having a BMI of 30 or greater according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  

But because a mother's influence is so strong, some see the survey findings as an opportunity to reverse bad behaviors and a call to action for breaking the cycle once and for all.

"While the statistics are disconcerting, we know that mothers are commonly viewed as role models for eating behavior and serve as gatekeepers of food," said Elizabeth Battaglino Cahill, RN, executive director of HealthyWomen. "From an early age, children tend to eat the same foods as their parents, especially mothers, so exposure to nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables is not only setting a good example, but also positioning your child on a lifelong course of good health."

Knowing the Personal Risks of Obesity

The HealthyWomen survey found that while there is a great understanding among women that obesity leads to an increased risk in developing secondary health conditions such as high blood pressure (93%), Type 2 diabetes (89%), and heart disease (88%), less than one-third of women recognize the increased risk of colon cancer (26%), gallstones (30%), and breast cancer (23%).  

"Women need to be their own advocates in the fight against all of these diseases," said Battaglino Cahill, "and understanding the influence that friends and family have on the likelihood that they will become obese is part of what's slowing them down. We need to help women understand that they have the opportunity to positively wield their influence by taking charge of their own nutrition and physical activity habits."

While a majority of the women surveyed acknowledge other people's obesity can influence their own likelihood of becoming obese (80%), only 28% recognize the impact of a friend.  In fact, studies show that a person has a much greater chance (57%) of becoming obese if he or she had a friend who became obese than if he/she had a sibling (40%) or spouse (37%) who became obese.

Bestselling author and Chief Medical Correspondent for Discovery Health TV Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP acknowledged the survey findings bring new light to prior conceptions and emphasize the importance of personal responsibility.  "Battling obesity is a matter of making smart decisions," she said.

A practicing internist and author of Body for Life for Women, Dr. Peeke advocates simple changes like adding whole grains, fruits, and vegetables in addition to moderate weekly activity for beginning steps to a healthier lifestyle.  "It's a basic formula of eating less, making better choices, and moving more," she said.

Call to Action

HW has created an online resource center with tips and tools specific to the WomenTALK survey including BMI and target heart rate calculators, family-friendly recipes, and exercise videos at The site also features educational content together with advice from Dr. Peeke and motivational articles including a personal perspective from boxer Muhammad Ali's daughter and obesity advocate Khaliah Ali.

About the Survey

This survey was conducted online within the United States by Harris Interactive on behalf of HealthyWomen from August 24-26, 2010 among 1,037 women ages 18 and older. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.

About HealthyWomen

HealthyWomen (HW) is the nation's leading independent health information source for women. To learn more, visit

SOURCE HealthyWomen