Trappings of Parenthood Lead to Long-Term Weight Gain, New Study Shows

Sept. 22, 2011

AUSTIN, Texas — Parenthood accelerates weight gain over the life course according to a new study from The University of Texas at Austin.

In a study to appear in Social Science and Medicine, Debra Umberson, professor of sociology and faculty research associate at the Population Research Center at the university, found that adults with children gain significantly more weight over time than those without.

Umberson and her team of researchers analyzed data from a national longitudinal survey, in which they tracked changes in body mass index (BMI) levels (a ratio of height to weight) among 3,617 adults over a 15-year period. They found that by age 55, parents reach an average BMI in the obese zone (over 30) and peak at an average BMI of 31 by their mid to late 60s. But for those without children, the average BMI merely reaches the overweight zone (25 to 29) by age 55.

As part of the study, Umberson and her team of researchers examined how various life-course factors, such as timing of first birth, transitioning into parenthood and living with an adult child, influence weight change over time.

According to the findings, both men and women who have their first child about age 26 to 27 gain the least weight over time. The further away from this age — either younger or older — the more rapid the weight gain, Umberson says.

Parents who have children at a young age are more likely to be of low socio-economic status, which is associated with increased risk for obesity, Umberson says. And those who have children later in life experience the effects of mid-life weight gain, which averages 3 to 4 pounds a year, along with the lifestyle constrictions of parenthood that further promote weight gain.

While living with a child, men gain even more weight than women. This finding suggests that living with children alters the lifestyles of men even more than for women. Factors that influence weight gain for men include reduced exercise time and a decrease in substance abuse, such as smoking and heavy drinking, Umberson says.

"Parenthood imposes pressure for routine and new responsibilities such as staying sober and healthy to care for children," Umberson says. "Given that smoking and heavy drinking are more prevalent among men, they are more likely to gain weight due to lifestyle behavioral changes."

Although both parents progressively gain weight over time, women gain more while raising more than one child. Umberson suggests this weight gain may be caused by the biological effects of pregnancy added to the daily constraints and responsibilities of parenting.

Umberson says the findings underscore how important it is for both men and women to maintain a healthy weight before and after they have children. This applies especially to those who are overweight or obese at the start of parenthood.

"Although the difference in annual rates of gain between parents and non-parents may not be noticeable in the short-run, these differences appear to become substantial over the course of adulthood," she says.

Umberson co-authored the study with Hui Liu, professor of sociology at Michigan State University, John Mirowsky, professor of sociology at The University of Texas at Austin, and Corinne Reczek, professor of sociology at the University of Cincinnati.

For more information, contact: Jessica Sinn, College of Liberal Arts, 512-471-2404; Debra Umberson, Professor, Department of Sociology, 512-232-6330.

7 Comments to "Trappings of Parenthood Lead to Long-Term Weight Gain, New Study Shows"

1.  Elizabeth Rogers said on Sept. 29, 2011

I disagree with her findings. I believe that people put on weight from lack of activity and exercise and eating too much. I had three children, starting when I was 23. When I got married in 1955 I weighed 106 lbs.
and was 5'3 3/4th" . For years I weighed 110 until I was 70. Now at age 77 I have gained up to 117 and have shrunk to 5'1 1/2". I have never dieted. My twin sister weighs now about 175 and is fat. Take your pick!

2.  Tatiana said on Sept. 29, 2011

"...and a decrease in substance abuse". Is this right or perhaps a typo?

3.  Jan Wolosin said on Sept. 30, 2011

That's interesting because I had my first child at 25, second at 27 and third and last child at 40 and my BMI is well under 30. My married daughter is approaching 30 so I guess this will be my excuse to mention her possibly starting a family.

4.  Mike said on Sept. 30, 2011

So heavy drinking and smoking keep a person trim and healthy? Not sure about that one: when I quit drinking heavily (BEFORE I became a father, BTW), I dropped weight. However, I can attest to decreased exercise time. As a parent, the only way I get time to exercise regularly is by eating lunch at my desk and going to the gym for an hour during work. It takes true commitment to health: unless exercise is one of your top three daily priorities, you won't do it. Daycare also helps, but is exorbitantly expensive.

5.  Wilma said on Oct. 1, 2011

I had children at 21 and 23. I will say my belly and thighs rebelled from that day forward (1st birth) and required some attention and I blame them for that! Any weight gain thereafter was because I love good food, love to cook it and to eat it. A decrease in activity and not cutting back on calories come to a predictable outcome. I am 76 years old with a decent a BMI and I still have to try.

6.  Alex said on Oct. 2, 2011

And we all know that science is the same as anecdote!

7.  The Doc said on Oct. 5, 2011

With all due respect to the commentators, it was great to read about some of your successful avoiding-overweight stories but what I want to point out is that your individual success story does not make this research null and void. Nowhere in this blurb does it specify this happens to every person; instead, this is based on statistical data, which calculates averages and tests for significance. There will always be exceptions because that is the nature of research. We never thought a human could break the 4 minute mile barrier either, but then someone did and more people continued to - the fact still remains that most people can't. Thus, we ought to use this research as an informational guide, in thinking about factors promoting healthy families.