The stereotypical grandparent spoils the grandchildren with cookies, soft drinks and other treats. Is there truth in the stereotype? With so many children struggling with obesity, it's time to consider: Are grandparents making their grandchildren fat? And, if so, what should be done about it?
Studies about how grandparents feed their grandchildren are woefully lacking, partly because they would be difficult to devise.
But two studies of UK children have shown a relationship between the amount of time the children spent in a grandparent's care and obesity.
A 2010 study concluded that children cared for full-time by grandparents were 34% more likely to be overweight. Part-time care by grandparents resulted in a 15% higher risk. In 2013 researchers studying UK data found that children cared for by grandparents between the ages of six months and three years were 22% more likely to be overweight.
In China a study concluded that children mainly cared for by grandparents were more than twice as likely than others to be overweight. The study also found that children are more likely to be overweight when two or more grandparents lived with them. In fact, they were 70% more likely to be overweight than children with no live-in grandparents. These two factors are important because multi-generational living is fairly common in China, and many Chinese grandparents provide child care for grandchildren.
On a more positive note, a Swedish study concluded that children whose families included supportive grandparents were less likely to be obese. The study found that emotional support from grandparents correlated with parents who made better food choices, even in low income families.
It's risky to draw conclusions about grandparents in general from data with some obvious limitations.
Still, we've all known grandparents who facilitated bad food choices and may be guilty of doing so ourselves. Do you see yourself in any of these scenarios?
- A grandmother welcomes her out-of-town grandchildren with chocolate chip cookies, timed so that they are still warm from the oven when the grandkids walk in.
- A diabetic grandfather stocks the candy dishes and puts ice cream in the freezer whenever the grandchildren are expected.
- Grandparents celebrate every holiday by giving the grandchildren candy and treats.
- A grandmother loves to take her grandchildren to the movies. Of course, soft drinks, popcorn and candy are part of the experience.
It's natural to want to provide food for those we love. Without that impulse, humans beings wouldn't have survived very long. It's also natural to associate the places we love with food. Many adult children feel irresistibly drawn to the pantry or refrigerator when they visit their parents.
So What's the Problem?
Obviously, grandparents raising grandchildren and those who provide full-time child care have a large influence on the eating habits of grandchildren. The influence of other grandparents is small, right? Is it a really a problem if a grandchild takes in a few too many calories at the grandparent's house once a week?
The answer lies in the messages underlying the offerings of food. Grandparents who fit the scenarios above are sending a number of problematic messages:
- Sweet or fatty high-calorie foods are preferable to other foods.
- Those who love you give you high-calorie foods.
- Special occasions should be marked with treats.
- Food naturally accompanies the watching of movies and TV.
These concepts can be internalized by children and can have a lifelong effect on a child's relationship with food. Why not replace them with better messages?
- The best foods are those that provide lots of nutrients without a lot of extra calories.
- Those who love you care about your well-being and want you to eat a healthful diet.
- Family celebrations and special occasions are enjoyable because we get to be with loved ones, not because of special foods.
- We should eat food when we are hungry, not when we do certain activities.
And a Solution
With a little effort, grandparents can discover healthful foods that their grandchildren like and substitute those for high-calorie offerings. You can also do the following:
- Take the grandchildren to a farmer's market where they can choose new fruits and vegetables to try.
- Take older grandchildren to a grocery store. Show them how to read labels and to make healthier choices.
- Let the grandchildren help prepare healthy snacks and meals.
- Avoid fast food meals with the grandchildren. Feed them at home or pack healthy snacks or a picnic lunch when you hit the road.
Grandparents can also develop the habit of readying a special activity or game to greet the grandchildren rather than offering treats.When the grandchildren are expected for a visit, the grandparents can spend time preparing activities for the grandchildren rather than spending hours in the kitchen.
The Role of Active Play
It's also possible that children put on pounds in grandparents' care because they aren't as active as when they are in the care of someone younger. Some grandparents have a hard time keeping up with active grandchildren and so encourage more sedentary activities. The best scenario is for grandparents to stay fit in order to encourage fitness in their grandchildren, but some grandparents have health issues that make movement difficult. Still, even grandparents who can't move much can encourage the grandchildren to move.
One of the best strategies is simply to get the grandchildren outside. If grandchildren are in a restricted area, such as a fenced-in yard, they will often play very happily and actively while a grandparent sits and supervises. Another option is to take them to a park or playground where other children can serve as playmates. Even indoor play can be very active if you provide the right kinds of toys, or put on some music so the little ones can dance.
What Not to Do
Grandparents should never tie a grandchild's weight to his or her worth.
It is best not to use appearance as a reason for weight loss. Any appeal involving better eating should instead speak to their desire to be better able to use their bodies.
Do not embark on a campaign of helping a grandchild lose weight without consulting the parents. Most of the time, the grandparents' job is simply to be good role models and to offer good food choices when the grandchildren are under their care.
A Collective Effort
You may be a grandparent who already practices healthful eating, who encourages the grandchildren to eat fruits and vegetables and who promotes active play. If so, you are to be commended; most of us have room for improvement.
But it's really not about whether grandparents are making their grandchildren fat. Pointing fingers is really beside the point. If our grandchildren are heavier than they should be, it's going to require a collective effort to turn that trend around. Grandparents can and should be a part of that effort.