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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Parental Feeding Practices and Children’s Weight Status in Mexican American Families

  • Author(s): Penilla, Carlos
  • Advisor(s): Ozer, Emily J
  • Deardorff, Julianna
  • et al.

It is known that mothers’ child-feeding behaviors are associated with their children’s weight status, but this is only one familial factor. There is a dearth of research on the associations of both mothers’ and fathers’ child-feeding behaviors and their children’s weight status in Mexican American families. In 2009-2010, 22% of Mexican American children aged 6 to 11 years had a body mass index (BMI) greater than or equal to the 95th percentile and were considered obese compared to 14% of non-Latino White children of similar ages. This disparity was also seen among children under age 6. In the same period, 16% of Mexican American children aged 2 to 5 years were considered obese compared to 9% of non-Latino White children. Obesity during these early years is associated with increased risk of obesity later in life. In Mexican families, where fathers often influence family decisions, it is important to understand how they may also influence decisions around child feeding. Parental child-feeding behaviors are a major focus of my research because they are modifiable risk factors in children’s weight status, particularly when compared to other predictors, such as parental weight status, parental education level and ethnicity. Using the conceptual framework from Davison and Birch’s (2001) ecological model, which identifies individual, family and sociocultural influences on children’s weight status, this dissertation applies quantitative and qualitative methods to examine parental and sociocultural associations with child-feeding behaviors in Mexican American families.

This dissertation research examines the associations of parental feeding behaviors and child weight status in Mexican American families, with a special focus on the role of fathers. I apply a three-pronged approach to the study of childhood obesity that includes a family, environmental, and nutrition policy component. At the family level, I demonstrate in my quantitative study (paper 1) that fathers’ child-feeding practices, such as pressure to eat and use of food to control behavior are equally as significant as mothers’ child-feeding practices in their associations with child weight status. For example, findings indicate that fathers’ higher use of pressure to eat and use of food to control behavior were significantly related to children’s lower weight status, after accounting for mothers’ feeding practices and other covariates. At the environmental level, I demonstrate in my qualitative study (paper 2) that both mothers and fathers experience structural and environmental obstacles, such as a lack of social support among neighbors and dirty, under-policed streets in urban neighborhoods, which negatively influences their ability to leave the house and makes it difficult to feed their children healthful foods. Specifically, I examine how these obstacles in turn influence the development of overweight and obesity in children aged 2 to 5 years. I have integrated the results of my first two studies with the existing literature on obesity in Latino children to inform the third component of my dissertation, a health policy brief. In this brief, I ask the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) to take steps and develop procedures to encourage full access to their services by Latino fathers and encourage their participation and, by so doing, support WIC goals for the nutrition of low-income children and their families. Overall, my findings suggest that in order to effectively intervene in the development of childhood obesity, community stakeholders, scholars and policymakers need a better understanding of how structural and environmental obstacles, and parents’ resources, culture, gender and ethnicity intersect and impact child weight.

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