Touring the Flaky Fringe


On the wilder frontiers of child obesity studies, there seems to be a lot of willingness to accuse parents of a particular gender for the entire problem. One headline, for example, purported to reveal the “untold story” which is that working mothers are to blame.

Truth be told, a lot of women would probably rather not work outside their homes. Also, whether they hold down jobs by choice or by necessity, they would rather not be blamed for childhood obesity.

But Nicole M. King seems to have done just that, in a article. As editor of what is billed as “the United States’ leading journal of family-policy research,” she is very familiar with the field, and opined that…

[…] the commentators bewailing the upsurge in childhood obesity have been keeping strangely quiet about an important backstory: namely, the role of maternal employment in incubating the problem.

Citing a study conducted by three universities in the United Kingdom, she points out “certain patterns” that line up with the presence of dangerously overweight children. Actually, it’s one pattern — a mother who works outside the home, and does not have enough time to cook healthful from-scratch meals, and fills her kids up with fast-food junk instead.

King writes:

In the current academic environment, it would take rare intellectual courage to challenge the cultural patterns that have taken mothers out of the home…

This is kind of hard to follow. What “cultural patterns”? Families can no longer afford to live on one income. In any state in the union, a full-time minimum wage employee does not make enough money to rent a one-bedroom apartment — forget about supporting a family.

Moms thanklessly bring home the bacon

A person can “challenge the cultural pattern” all day long, but since it is less a cultural pattern than a hardcore economic necessity, there isn’t much point, unless the critic is prepared to dismantle the entire system. Otherwise, there is little progress to be made by casting blame. This blaming implies that working mothers are acting out some kind of fairy-tale princess fantasy, to the children’s detriment, rather than working long hours for inadequate pay to house, feed and clothe those children.

The debate has another facet. To indict mothers who work outside the home is to frame the whole question in a very U.S.-centric way. In Mexico, the second most obese country after America, the culture tends more toward women doing their money-making activities at home, or taking their kids to work. In other words, a great many Mexican mothers are not separated from their kids all day, yet the result is childhood obesity — just like in America where moms leave the house and go alone to their workplaces.

Middle Eastern countries actively discourage women, especially mothers, from working outside the home. Yet obesity is a problem. In Samoa, the female workforce participation rate is only 26%, yet Samoans are known to be large people.

A change

Some time later, King reported again on the parental blame issue, this time in the course of reviewing a piece which attributed the problem to socioeconomic status. King, who is more a proponent of family environment as a causative factor, seems to now see the male parents as the bad guys. “Missing fathers, swelling waistlines” is the pertinent phrase.

But Childhood Obesity News has recently said a lot about fathers, so will leave it there for now.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The untold story behind child obesity,”, 11/22/13
Source: “Countries Where Women Are Least Likely To Be In The Labor Force,”, 03/13/17
Source: “Missing Fathers, Swelling Waistlines,”, 02/16/17
Photo credit: bialasiewicz/123RF Stock Photo

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
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Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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