Like Mother Like Daughter? Say It Isn't So…

New survey reveals majority of women underestimate their influence on children in combating the cycle of obesity

Red Bank, N.J. – New research released today by HealthyWomen (HW) sheds intriguing light on women’s understanding of their role and influence in America's growing obesity epidemic. The survey showed that while the majority of women believe a parent's obesity has an influence on a child's risk of becoming obese (87%), surprisingly only one-quarter (28%) of women surveyed assign the responsibility to themselves. In reality, studies have shown stronger correlation over time for mother-child obesity compared with father-child obesity.

And the influence starts early. Only 11% of women in HealthyWomen's WomenTALK survey realized that a child's risk of becoming obese more than doubles if the mother is obese during her first trimester of pregnancy. According to recent research, this impacts roughly one in five women that are obese when they become pregnant. Forty-six percent of respondents were unsure of the effect of maternal obesity on the risk of a child becoming obese. Yet, studies show the risk for newborn complications, including long-term complications like obesity, is higher for obese women with a BMI of 35 or more.

BMI (body mass index) is an established measure used by physicians and health experts to determine weight status and is calculated from a person’s height and weight. Obesity is defined as having a BMI of 30 or greater, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Because a mother's influence is so strong, some see the survey findings as an opportunity to reverse bad behaviors and a call to action for breaking the cycle once and for all.

"While the statistics are disconcerting, we know that mothers are commonly viewed as role models for eating behavior and serve as gatekeepers of food," says Elizabeth Battaglino Cahill, RN, executive director of HealthyWomen. "From an early age, children tend to eat the same foods as their parents, especially mothers, so exposure to nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables is not only setting a good example, but also positioning your child on a lifelong course of good health."

The sixth annual WomenTALK survey sought to understand obesity and its impact on women and their families in addition to the influences and relationships that affect obesity in women. The survey of 1,037 women was conducted online by Harris Interactive to determine women's level of awareness regarding select research findings provided by the STOP Obesity Alliance of which HW is a member.

Knowing the Personal Risks of Obesity

The HealthyWomen survey found that while there is a great understanding among women that obesity leads to an increased risk in developing secondary health conditions such as high blood pressure (93%), type 2 diabetes (89%) and heart disease (88%), less than one-third of women recognize the increased risk of colon cancer (26%), gallstones (30%) and breast cancer (23%).

"Women need to be their own advocates in the fight against all of these diseases," says Battaglino Cahill, "and understanding the influence that friends and family have on the likelihood that they will become obese is part of what’s slowing them down. We need to help women understand that they have the opportunity to positively wield their influence by taking charge of their own nutrition and physical activity habits."

While a majority of the women surveyed acknowledge other people's obesity can influence their own likelihood of becoming obese (80%), only 28% recognize the impact of a friend. In fact, studies show that a person has a much greater chance (57%) of becoming obese if he or she had a friend who became obese than if he/she had a sibling (40%) or spouse (37%) who became obese.

Best-selling author and chief medical correspondent for Discovery Health TV Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, says the survey findings bring new light to prior conceptions and emphasize the importance of personal responsibility. "Battling obesity is a matter of making smart decisions," she says. "In understanding the significance that our relationships can have on our lifestyle choices, we see an opportunity for women to play supportive roles in weight loss and best living practices."


A practicing internist and author of Body for Life for Women, Dr. Peeke advocates simple changes like adding whole grains, fruits and vegetables to the diet, in addition to moderate weekly activity, as beginning steps to a healthier lifestyle. "It's a basic formula of eating less, making better choices and moving more," she says.

Call to Action

HW has created an online resource center with tips and tools specific to the WomenTALK survey including BMI and target heart rate calculators, family-friendly recipes and exercise videos at www.HealthyWomen.org/womenTALK. In addition to educational content, the site features advice from Dr. Peeke and motivational articles including a personal perspective from boxer Muhammad Ali’s daughter and obesity advocate Khaliah Ali.

"Empowering and educating women is the best way we know to break the cycle of obesity and promote healthy habits for the life of any woman and her loved ones," says Battaglino Cahill.

2010 WomenTALK Survey Fact Sheet

Resources to Fight Obesity

About the Survey
This survey was conducted online within the United States by Harris Interactive on behalf of HealthyWomen from August 24-26, 2010, among 1,037 women ages 18 and older. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For complete survey methodology please contact dcarlton@healthywomen.org.

About HealthyWomen
HealthyWomen (HW) is the nation's leading independent health information source for women. For more than 20 years, women have been coming to the HW for answers to their most pressing and personal health care questions. HW provides health information through a wide array of online content and print publications that are original, objective and reviewed and approved by medical experts. Its website, www.HealthyWomen.org®, was recognized by ForbesWoman as one of the "Top 100 Websites for Women" and was named the top women’s health website by Dr. Mehmet Oz in O, The Oprah Magazine and by Good Housekeeping magazine. To learn more, visit www.HealthyWomen.org.

About Harris Interactive
Harris Interactive is one of the world's leading custom market research firms, leveraging research, technology, and business acumen to transform relevant insight into actionable foresight. Known widely for the Harris Poll and for pioneering innovative research methodologies, Harris offers expertise in a wide range of industries including healthcare, technology, public affairs, energy, telecommunications, financial services, insurance, media, retail, restaurant, and consumer package goods. Serving clients in over 215 countries and territories through our North American, European, and Asian offices and a network of independent market research firms, Harris specializes in delivering research solutions that help us – and our clients – stay ahead of what’s next. For more information, please visit www.harrisinteractive.com.

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