CHICAGO -- Could kids be to blame for new parents' bad health habits?
A study found that mothers of young children were heavier and ate more calories, sugary drinks and fatty foods than childless women. Dads and moms in the study were less active than their peers without kids.
Sheri Lee Schearer, 34, says the results reflect her life with a 5-month-old son. Before, when she worked as a paralegal, she had time to make a spinach salad or go out for one. Now, as a stay-at-home mom in southern New Jersey, she grabs whatever is easiest and quickest.
"I often find that his needs come before mine," she said. "Do I get to the gym? No. Do I eat always healthy? No."
Quick, easily prepared foods are often high in fat and calories. Parents who choose these foods may end up serving them to their children, perpetuating a cycle of unhealthy eating, the study authors said.
"This isn't a study about blame," said co-author Jerica Berge, a University of Minnesota researcher. "This is about identifying ... a very high-risk time period" for parents that doctors should be aware of so they can offer solutions, she said.
That may include diet advice, parent-child exercise classes, or just getting parents to take walks with their kids, the researchers said.
The study involved 1,520 adults aged 25 on average, including parents with children younger than 5 years old. They were among more than 4,000 Minneapolis-area public school students enrolled in a study in their teens; the new study includes those who responded to two follow-up health surveys and answered questions about their diet and activity.
Results are published online Monday in the journal Pediatrics.
Mothers ate more fatty foods and drank about seven sugary drinks weekly, versus about four among childless women. Moms also had an average of 2,360 calories daily, 368 calories more than women without children. With that many calories, women that age would need to be active to avoid gaining weight, walking more than 3 miles daily at a moderate pace.
But mothers got on average a little more than two hours of at least moderate activity weekly, versus three hours weekly among childless women. Mothers had a slightly higher average body-mass index than childless women -- 27 versus 26. Healthy BMIs are in the 19-24 range.
Fathers ate about the same amount of daily calories as childless men and both had an average BMI of about 25, but fathers got less physical activity -- about five hours weekly, compared to almost seven hours among childless men.
Among study participants, more of the parents were black and had low incomes than the childless adults, but the researchers took race, income and other factors into account that might have affected diet or activity levels.
The study has several limitations; there's no data on how many women recently had babies, whose weight would still reflect pregnancy pounds. There's also no information on the number of single parents, who likely face even more diet and exercise challenges than married parents.
Sarah Krieger, an American Dietetic Association spokeswoman and St. Petersburg, Fla. dietitian who works with new mothers, said some of the mothers may have had postpartum depression, which might affect their eating and exercise habits.
Schearer, the New Jersey mom, said she's lost half the 40 pounds she gained while pregnant and doesn't care if she never loses that last 20 pounds.
Becoming a mom "has been the best thing that ever happened to me," she said.