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Fact/Fiction: Are working mums to blame for Britain’s child obesity crisis?

Old news, truthfully retold. This week we get stuck in to claims that the next generation's widening waists are down to women at work

Fact/Fiction 1350 Miles Cole

How it was told

Britain is in the grip of a childhood obesity crisis with one-in-10 kids obese by age five, rising to one-in-five by 10 years old, according to government figures.

From Jamie Oliver cracking down on Turkey Twizzlers to ending ads for junk food on TV, there has been a concerted push from the government and food industries to reduce waistlines and the knock-on effect of obesity on the NHS.

Last week, a study was released that assessed how mothers’ employment impacted on their child’s BMI.

The result? For the national newspapers and their online counterparts, the blame for kids gaining weight lay squarely at the door of single mothers.

“Scientists say working mums could be to blame for huge increase in overweight kids”, claimed The Mirror, while Mail Online went down the same route with: “Scientists blame working mothers for Britain’s childhood obesity epidemic after study of 20,000 families”.

Sister titles The Times and The Sunday Times opted for differing headlines, ranging from brief and to the point with: “Working mums have heavier children” to the slightly odd: “Nice work, Mum: you’ve turned me into a lazy lardy”.

Other titles opted to focus on the furious response triggered by the University College London study behind the stories.

The Independent summed it up: “Childhood obesity crisis study blaming working mothers cause outrage”.

As did Huffington Post with: “Childhood obesity blamed on working mums – not dads – and people are furious”, while The Telegraph’s Lucy Dunn opined: “Being a working mum is hard enough without blaming us for childhood obesity too”.

But did the study actually pin the blame on mums?

Fact.Checked.

While it is true that the study does show a link between working mothers – especially those who are single – and rising childhood obesity, the idea that scientists are blaming them for making their kids fat isn’t quite right.

The UCL research – titled ‘The impact of maternal employment on children’s weight: Evidence from the UK’ – has been penned by Emla Fitzsimons and Benedetta Pongiglione and will be published in the journal SSM – Population next month.

They assessed almost 20,000 UK children up to the age of 14 looking for a link between mothers finding work and the sedentary behaviour and poor eating habits that lead to ballooning weight and resulting health problems, both physical and mental.

The report concludes that single mothers finding that employment is linked to adverse effects on children’s BMI. 

The study found kids of single mothers in work are 24.3 per cent more likely to be overweight, reporting that these children are 29 per cent less likely to eat a regular breakfast and 19 per cent more likely to watch TV for more than three hours a day.

However, they also found no statistical impact from the fathers’ side with 80 per cent working full-time hours consistently throughout the kids’ childhood.

The study itself also warns that there are limitations to its findings – non-standard shift patterns and other time-varying factors were not taken into account, so night shifts and zero-hour contracts were not assessed.

However, the takeaway from this research was not a demonising attack on working single mothers who are struggling to keep the plates spinning between their career and kids.

In fact, it concludes that the solution must include fathers, for example by designing healthy eating programmes that better bring both parents on board. It also concludes that more prevention work at schools could be key in promoting healthy behaviour.

Instead the narrative that mothers are somehow to blame has been propagated by the round of reporting on the study which has then fed fury on social media.

Image: Miles Cole

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