File photo: iStockYoung girls with single parents are more than twice as likely to be obese as girls living in two-parent households, while boys’ obesity is more likely to be linked to takeaway food consumption, according to new research.
Professor Peter O’Rourke, a senior biostatistician at Queensland’s QIMR Berghofer medical research institute, analysed information gathered on more than 3500 children to explore the differences between genders and age groups in regards to childhood obesity.
The research, published in Public Health, revealed Queensland’s obesity rate in children was 9 per cent, 2 per cent higher than the 2011-2012 national average.
Socio-economic conditions, diet and exercise were named as the three factors that most heavily influenced a child’s likelihood of being obese.
But Professor O’Rourke said the effects of these factors differed between boys and girls.
“For girls, particularly older girls, the main contributing factor was parental social disadvantage. It was manifest by both the education level of parents and single status of parents,” he said.
“For boys the dominant factor was excessive use of takeaway foods.”
Key findings were:Boys aged 5-1112 per cent were obeseFactors strongly associated with obesity were parents’ level of education, takeaway food consumption and lack of participation in organised sport.Boys who parents were not university educated were more than twice as likely to be obese.Boys who ate takeaway food two or more times a week were nearly two-and-a-half times more likely to be obese.Boys aged 12-17Seven per cent were obeseFactors strongly associated with obesity were parental education and takeaway food.Girls aged 5-1111 per cent were obeseFactors strongly associated with obesity were parent’s level of education and marital status.Younger girls with single parents were more than twice as likely to be obese as girls living in two-parent householdsGirls aged 12 to 17Four per cent were obeseFactors strongly associated with obesity were parents who were not university educated.These girls were also three times more likely to be obese if from a single-parent household, and more than twice as likely to be obese if they do not participate in organised sportProfessor O’Rourke said determining why girls and boys were so different when it came to obesity was not part of the research scope.
“We do not know why girls from single-parent households are more likely to be obese. More research needs to be done in this area,” he said.
“I could speculate that girls are more sensitised by family issues and boys have more freedom so therefore make more independent choices about takeaway foods.
“Knowing which factors are associated with obesity in boys and girls of different ages is crucial because it will help policy makers to develop effective age- and gender-specific strategies to tackle childhood obesity.”
Professor O’Rourke said the research was done in conjunction with the Queensland government Department of Health as it conducted regular surveys of a whole range of health indicators on behalf of the commonwealth.
“After they had performed their analysis and done state-wide reporting we had access to the data to identify our particular theme which was childhood obesity and then screen from their surveys the risk factors to identify which of these were important risk factors contributing to childhood obesity,” he said.
Mother Jo Walker said she found the findings of the research frightening.
“I wouldn’t say the parents are at fault. I understand for single parents or time-poor parents it is hard to bake fresh food all the time and prepare nice healthy meals,” Mrs Walker said.
“But I suppose at the end of the day they are the ones doing the shopping and offering the food up; I guess in some ways it does come down to them.”
Mrs Walker, who has a four-year-old son, said she had already started educating him on the importance of health.
“I think even now we are educating him, you know – we don’t eat that sort of food very often because it’s not good for us, it’s not good for our teeth, it’s not good for our tummies,” she said.
“So just hopefully as he gets older I can explain a little bit more why it’s not good for him.”
Professor O’Rourke said he was keen to follow up on the initial research, funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia.
“The problem is still an important one and obviously we would like to see what impact our results have; have things changed; what are new messages and new trends that should be investigated?” he said.