Saturday 7 December 2019

Having children can lead to being overweight - but this is not just a parent problem

Factors: Less time plays role in what we eat in family home

Food guilt: Chrissie Russell with a 'cronut' treat, but Aoife Hearne says we should not feel bad. Photo: DAVE MEEHAN
Food guilt: Chrissie Russell with a 'cronut' treat, but Aoife Hearne says we should not feel bad. Photo: DAVE MEEHAN

Chrissie Russell

It's eight o'clock. The five-year-old has finally surrendered to sleep and the baby is happily snoring, with both hands free and a bit of time to myself, I know exactly where I'm heading…

It's not out for a jog. I'm not grabbing my gym bag, waving bye to my husband and storming out for a quick workout.

No, I'm on a one-way course to the kitchen for a bowl of crisps and a pre-mixed G&T then it's straight to the sofa for some quality time with the TV.

The waistband of my jeans had already suggested as much, but a quick online BMI calculator recently confirmed my suspicions: You are overweight.

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It seems I'm in good company. According to the new Healthy Ireland Survey, more than one in two mums with children under 18 are overweight or obese, as are almost three-quarters of Irish dads. Overall the research revealed 63pc of all parents with young children are overweight, with half of all mums and dads not managing to meet the minimum recommended levels of physical activity.

So what's going on? Does having kids make you fat?

Registered dietitian and nutrition expert on 'Operation Transformation' Aoife Hearne reckons it depends where you're starting from. "I think if eating habits are poor to start with - ie a lot of convenience foods, not cooking a lot etc - then it can be a real challenge for parents. Couple that with a lot less sleep, less exercise and less time in general, I can see how it is easy to rely on more processed foods."

But as a mum of three, she personally finds that parenthood presents specific problems. "You just have less time to do anything," she says. "So for me, organising and preparing ahead of time when it comes to our family meals is really important - otherwise we end up eating convenience food that is high in fat, sugar and low in fibre, or takeaways."

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Eating on the go, munching on leftovers and constantly playing taxi driver to afterschool activities all conspire to keep mums' and dads' calorie counts up and time to exercise down. Research has also shown that parents, mums in particular, are notoriously bad at prioritising their own needs over their kids. Earlier this year, a study revealed six out of 10 mums felt guilty if they exercised when they could be spending time with their kids.

"The emotion mothers feel most after love is guilt," says mum-of-four Siobhan O'Neill White. "Would I like to be a size 10? Sure. But am I willing to give up my few glasses of wine and crisps on a Friday night - er no. They're practically medicinal at this point!"

The director is pragmatic about the weighty research. "I'm carrying a few extra pounds and all my children are under 18 so I can't disagree with it," she laughs. "I think it's because it's all so stressful and busy with children. The other day my daughter had a tooth pulled and my plans for making a roast dinner went out the window.

"Or say I'm planning a run, well if I've been up with a sick child all the night, then I'm less likely to go."


There's also the age factor.

The average age for having a first baby in Ireland is now 31 - and weight, be it pregnancy pounds or not, gets harder to shift as you get older.

"Generally, from around age 25, our metabolic rates - how many calories we burn on a daily basis - reduces by about two to three percent every decade," says Hearne. "So in theory we should be moving more and eating less as we get older, but in reality, we're eating more and moving less."

But Rob Cullen, who along with wife Yvonne lost 13 stone between them last year, isn't convinced parenthood can be used as an excuse for not being fit and setting a good example for your children.

"I think some people who are overweight might use it as an excuse, that X amount of years ago when they didn't have kids they weren't overweight but I can't see it as anything else but an excuse, if anything, you should be leading more of an example," says the dad of two.

Woman eating dark chocolate

"You can't sit there eating chocolate and tell your child they can't eat it. You must always lead by example. Since losing the weight, our two boys eat much healthier, we eat healthily together."

He's right, of course.

But I don't think it's simply a case of 'I blame the parents'. First off, I'm not convinced this is a parent problem. Yes, 63pc of parents might be overweight but the figure for the wider population is 60pc, it doesn't seem like the child-free cohort is exactly flying the flag for health and wellbeing. As a nation we obviously need greater education on food and being active.

Professor Donal O'Shea, the HSE's clinical lead for obesity, is adamant that personal responsibility begins with knowing what we weigh and what our children weigh. "To empower everybody, everyone needs to have weighing scales in the house," he says.

"We need to get away from the taboo of weighing - it's essential."

Others, like dietitian Caroline O'Connor from Solid Start, say it's important to remember that weight isn't the only indicator of wellness.

Problem: Obesity levels are rising in the West. Picture posed

"BMI is only one measure of health and that improvements in health can be achieved across the whole weight spectrum," says O'Connor. "Thinness doesn't equate to health."

What the experts are united in is the importance of taking action to ensure that everyone is better educated when it comes to food and fitness.

"I'm tired of all these reports assessing the size of the obesity epidemic," says Paula Mee, consultant dietitian. "We know there is a problem. More of the allocated Government funds should be spent on helping parents with solutions.

"I think people need help with more positive, achievable ways to change - not just parents. We all need to take action: Government policy, food manufacturers, caterers, retailers, education in schools, families and individuals."

It's not easy though to tread the line between enforcing positive habits while trying not to demonise certain foods or stigmatise different body shapes. As a nutrition expert on 'Operation Transformation', which will be back for a new series from January 8, Hearne is used to seeing negative associations attached to food and how unhelpful it is. "There should never be guilt when it comes to eating," she says. "I think because so many people have 'diet' mentality ingrained in them, they feel that, if they are not eating salad, they should feel guilty. Moving away from that is important. We're not 'bad' for eating chocolate and 'good' for eating broccoli."

"I feel a responsibility to model a healthy weight for my kids but I also point out to them that being skinny is not good, strong is better," says White. "Yes my tummy looked in better shape at 33 compared to 37 - I've had four kids and accept I will always have a baby belly and you know what? That's ok. I exercise (when I can), I eat well (as much as I can) and I'm happy with my family and my life - I'm not going to spend all my time worrying about the extra stone I'm carrying."

Whether you're a parent or not, if your weight is negatively affecting your health then you need to take action. But, as a parent, I also believe there's more to life than a number on the scales. I cook from scratch most of the time, get out and be active with the family when I can. I don't have time to get my nails done, I can rarely rely on a bath going uninterrupted. If mummy 'me' time is a bar of Galaxy and an episode of 'Succession' then I reckon my wobbly bits are a small price to pay for it.

Read more: Fiona Ness: Is family life making you fat?

Irish Independent

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