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Grandparents also important to children's weight

An elderly male and female couple using a computer



The obesity epidemic is not limited to Western countries; China's growing economic development has had its impact on that country's waistline, as well. Just as in Western countries, children who are overweight or obese in China are likely to become overweight or obese adults, with all the attendant health risks. I've written a great deal recently about the impact of a child's parents and family on the child's weight, but most of those studies are done from a Western cultural context.

Since the 1980's China has had a "family planning policy" that limits families to one child: over 90% of children in urban areas who are under 6 years of age are only children. In China it is customary for multiple generations to live together and for grandparents to share daily parenting responsibilities. The challenge of childhood obesity is therefore a bit different than in Western cultures (Appetite 2007;48(3):377-383), as grandparents' attitudes toward food and their beliefs regarding the proper feeding of children is added to that of the child's parents.

Researchers in Beijing, China interviewed the parents and grandparents in twenty-three families from various economic and educational levels regarding the proper care and feeding of the single child in the household. The children were all between 3 and 6 years of age and almost 60% of the children were obese.

As the grandparents were universally the primary caregivers of the children, the child's health and well-being was seen as a reflection on them personally. One interesting cultural belief that led to overfed children was that fat children were healthy children - being thin was viewed as being hazardous to the child's health. Similarly, fat children were seen as likely to grow taller, especially if he or she at more meat.

On the other hand, food plays many roles in the Chinese family that will be familiar to Westerners. Grandparents and parents often had different ideas about child nutrition, with grandparents declaring that since they had raised children already, they clearly knew how to feed children. Food was often used as a tool to control children's behavior, including offering food rewards or treats and promising (or withdrawing) trips to McDonald's based on the child's behavior. Food was also used as a way to express love or caring - grandparents loved to give their grandchildren sweets and snacks.

What this means for you

While it might be unusual in Western cultures for grandparents to be the primary caregivers in a three-generation family, grandparents can still play a major role in a child's diet. When I say that healthy eating is a family affair, that includes grandparents and all those who feed the child. Get grandparents involved in your family's healthy lifestyle and not only will you have healthier children, you're likely to have healthier grandparents, as well.

First posted: April 27, 2007