Obesity is a growing concern, particularly among children. In the past 30 years, rates of obesity have more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents. Now, new research published in BMJ Open suggests that children whose parents divorce may be more prone to weight gain than those with a secure parental marital status.

Past research has indicated that a child’s family life may influence their weight. For example, Medical News Today recently reported on a study suggesting that children of strict parents are more likely to be obese. A 2012 study also indicated that parental stress may influence a child’s weight.

The researchers of this latest study – including Anna Biehl of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health in Norway – set out to determine whether a child’s family structure has any influence on their weight.

To reach their findings, the team analyzed 3,166 children (1,537 girls and 1,629 boys) from 127 schools across Norway. The children had a mean age of 8.3 years and were a part of the 2010 Norwegian Child Growth Study.

Nurses at the children’s schools measured their height, weight and waist circumference to determine whether they were generally overweight or obese, using definitions from the International Obesity Task Force. Abdominal obesity – excessive fat around the stomach or abdomen – was defined by a waist-to-height ratio of 0.5 or more.

The researchers then divided the children into groups based on the marital status of their parents, which included married, never married, cohabiting, single, separated or divorced.

Of the children, 19% were generally overweight or obese, and 8.9% were abdominally obese. More girls were generally overweight or obese than boys, but no gender differences were found for abdominal obesity.

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Children whose parents have divorced may be more likely to be overweight or obese than children whose parents are still married.

Overall, the researchers found that children of parents who divorced were 54% more likely to be generally overweight or obese and 89% more likely to be abdominally obese, compared with children of parents who were still married.

The investigators say these findings remained true even after accounting for other influential factors, such as mother’s education, area of residence and ethnic origin.

The findings were more prominent in boys whose parents were divorced. These boys were 63% more likely to be generally overweight or obese and 104% more likely to be abdominally obese than boys whose parents were married.

A similar pattern was seen in girls, but the researchers claim it was not statistically significant.

Commenting on the findings, the researchers say:

By focusing on actual societal changes, this study adds valuable background information about potentially vulnerable groups at risk of developing adiposity.”

Although the team does not know exactly why children of divorced parents appear to have a higher risk of being overweight or obese, they hypothesize that divorced parents may spend less time cooking, have a higher reliance on unhealthy convenience foods or have a lower household income.

Furthermore, they note that a divorce may disrupt parent-child relationships. It may cause continuing conflict between parents or result in a house move, meaning the child may have to strike up new relationships.

“Such emotional stress may impact on eating behavior and physical activity level and thus explain the development and maintenance of childhood overweight and obesity,” the researchers say.

When it comes to boys being more affected by parental divorce than girls, the study authors hypothesize that boys may just be more vulnerable.

However, the team notes that their findings should be “interpreted with caution,” since the number of children with divorced parents was relatively low.

They were also unable to determine how long parents had been divorced, and they could not include children’s lifestyle factors, such diet and exercise regime – information they say would have been beneficial to the study.

In addition, the study is not able to establish cause and effect, the researchers say. They could not determine “whether the development of overweight and obesity was initiated before the divorce or whether the impact on the children’s weight status was primarily attributed to marital conflict or the divorce.”

Obesity may not be the only health implication resulting from divorced parents. A 2012 study from the University of Toronto in Canada found that men whose parents divorced before they reach 18 may have a higher risk of stroke later in life.