Are grandparents driving the child obesity epidemic?

 A few years ago news came that grandparents may be a big factor in increasing child obesity. I found it an interesting trivia at the time, but did not give it much thought, as I did not have children. Now that we have Little F and he has recently been looked after a lot by my husband’s parents I decided to look into those claims. Especially that we have caught granny and granddad red-handed on a couple of occasions, giving Little F ice-cream – though we specifically asked not to give him any sweets. They don’t see the harm. They don’t want Little F feel like he is missing out, while older grandchildren (collected from the school) are enjoying a daily treat (is it still a treat?).


Read on to see what I have found out.


There is an unquestionable rise in grandparents helping out with childcare, or taking over the entire burden of care while parents are at work. According to Grandparents Plus, a national charity offering advice and support to grandparents caring for children, 63% of grandparents with grandchildren under 16 provide some form of care. This may range from looking after children full time or collecting them from school.


With more women returning to work, to make ends meet or continue career, one in three UK working mother’s rely on grandparents for help with childcare. This is one of the findings of a collaborative review by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Grandparents Plus, the Institute of Gerontology at King’s College London and the Beth Johnson Foundation.


Crucially, another study, conducted by University College London, found that children partly cared for by grandparents had 15% increased risk of being overweight, increasing to 34% if the care was provided full time.

fat girl

The bleak picture is that over a quarter of children in UK aged 2-15 are either overweight or obese according to latest figures (2012) by Health Survey for England (HSE). The treat culture exercised by many grandparents to placate or bribe the grandchildren is very short-sighted.


It does not seem to take into consideration the rise of child obesity and type 2 diabetes in children as young as 5 (type 2 diabetes used to be considered an adult disease). It also bypasses an obvious problem faced by an overweight teenager, that of potential unpopularity and certain low self-esteem. According to Public Health England website ‘In one study, severely obese children rated their quality of life as low as children with cancer on chemotherapy’.


And there are of course obvious health problems of the middle-aged obese adult, if the child will be lucky enough to live that long. The diseases and health conditions brought on by overindulgence don’t sound appealing:  high blood pressure, heart disease, osteoarthritis, stroke, some types of cancer…  Quite the pick’n’mix. What grandparent would buy the love of their grandchildren at such high price?


So where is the line between puppy-fat and an overweight child? The grandparents of today don’t take into account that the puppy-fat, they may have sported and which they grew out of in their teenage years, is here to stay with their grandchildren. It is here to stay as the level of physical activity among children has gone down and the level of stay at home mothers, cooking healthy, home-made food every night, has also decreased. Together with the price of sweets.


The exchange between grandparents and grandchildren is not fair, as some research suggests. A study by King’s College London Institute of Gerontology and Grandparents Plus, suggests that grandparents who provide up to 15 hours of childcare per week are in better health than those who do not provide care at all. The study took into account any pre-existing health conditions and socioeconomic background.


Professor Karen Glaser from the Institute of Gerontology, King’s College London who led the research, said, “The study tracked almost 30,000 grandparents over time. Even when we looked at their previous health and life experiences we found a clear relationship between looking after grandchildren and grandparental health and wellbeing. Those who provide no care have the poorest health.”


Am I as a parent trying to shift the blame on grandparents? No, but I think that the grandparents should take their position in this trial. They should be presented with the evidence and see the connection between their chocolate stained hands and their grandchildren’s shortening life span.


M&Ms – Photo credit: 独棹观星 / Foter / CC BY-NC
Girl – Photo credit: cliff1066™ / Foter / CC BY

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