Do kids make you fat?

A new study looks at the nutritional cost of parenting.

Published January 12, 2007 6:29PM (EST)

From the laboratories of compulsive noshing! USA Today weighed in on a new study that shows living with children boosts your fat intake. (For any parent who doesn't live in a vegan ashram, this won't be news.)

Perhaps fearing a backlash against the little darlings, the report is careful not to blame the children, noting that the finding "doesn't prove that the presence of children causes adults to eat more fat." (Can you imagine the obesity problem for elementary-school teachers?) Instead, the problem is that birthright of every red-blooded (and soon to be artery-clogged) American child: junk food.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Iowa College of Medicine and the University of Michigan, found that adults who lived with children ate almost five more grams of fat a day than the child-free adults and nearly two grams more of saturated fat a day -- equivalent to an extra 6-inch personal-size pepperoni pizza a week. Not so much, but since the study also found that the average child-free adult already eats around 30 percent more fat per day than is recommended, it's not a terribly salutary sign. The study didn't seem to analyze the results according to gender, but I imagine that the difference between mothers and child-free women would be the most stark, since most mothers still do more cooking, cleaning and food prep than most fathers.

I don't doubt the study -- I'm not big on snack foods, but the change in my kitchen cabinets once my kids graduated from rice cereal hasn't been a pretty one. One of the weirdest aspects of American culture, and maybe now all consumer-driven societies, is "kids food." These items include the so-called healthy products like Veggie Booty (for the Booty-ignorant, this is basically a natural cheese puff dusted with kale powder) and Annie's macaroni and cheese, transfat-acious foods like corn dogs and Chips Ahoy, and the items on nearly every children's menu across the country: burgers, fries, plain pasta, pizza, milkshakes and on and on straight to the angioplasty waiting room.

Add to this the rituals of Halloween, Christmas cookies, gingerbread houses, massive chocolate Easter bunnies and the ubiquitous goodie bag, that takeaway "treat" for every birthday party that has already plied your child with cake, ice cream and the candied guts of a piñata. If you're a caring and health-conscious mother, there's only one thing to do: Eat them yourself.

But let's face it. Who buys the food? Who cooks the food? Many parents I know have completely given up cooking "grown-up food" with vegetables, whole grains and all the stuff they used to eat and almost exclusively "prepare" things the kids will eat. My family has fallen into its own strange habits -- eating homemade burritos three nights out of five. This is our concession to whiny voices and years of throwing out good food. In the world of food marketing, it's as if kids are special creatures with completely different dietary needs than the human beings they grow up to be. And parents, strung between their increasingly busy schedules and the insatiable hunger to make their kids happy, relent, imagining that their very hungry caterpillars will turn into butterflies no matter what nasty thing they eat.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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