Assessing the Association Among Food Insecurity, Child Feeding Practices, and Obesity in Low-Income Latino Families

Year: 2005

Research Center: Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Investigator: Crawford, Patricia

Institution: University of California, Berkeley

Project Contact:
Patricia Crawford
Center for Weight and Health
9 Morgan Hall
University of California, Berkeley
Berkeley, CA 94720-3104
Phone: 510-642-5572


Overweight and obesity across nearly all age levels are of increasing concern in the United States because of the emergence of obesity at earlier childhood ages and the negative implications for later adult body composition and health. Recent research has suggested that food insecurity may actually play a role in the onset of obesity among some low-income groups. Although the evidence is not yet conclusive, the results of several lines of current research are consistent with causal associations between food insecurity and obesity. One line of inquiry is to examine food insecurity in relation to child feeding and rearing practices that may facilitate child overweight.

This study assessed the impact of maternal food insecurity, both past and current, on child feeding practices that encourage weight gain among children in low-income families enrolled in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Knowledge gained about factors influencing child feeding practices is relevant to WIC nutrition educators, who are responsible for educating mothers about effective child feeding strategies.

Three research questions guided the study:

  1. Are mothers who are currently experiencing food insecurity or who have experienced food insecurity in the past more likely than other mothers to (a) be indulgent with respect to feeding their child, (b) practice controlling/ restrictive feeding practices, (c) use food as a reward, or (d) offer their children larger portion sizes?
  2. Are mothers who are overweight or obese more likely to engage in these child feeding practices?
  3. Are mothers who engage in these child feeding practices more likely to have overweight children or children at risk for overweight?

The pilot study examined the possible influence of past and current food insecurity on child feeding practices and prevalence of childhood overweight. Rates of child overweight in this pilot study population exceeded the national norms for low-income Hispanic children ages 2-5 by more than 100 percent (40 percent versus 17 percent). However, this convenience sample of WIC-eligible urban and rural mothers of children ages 2-5 is not representative of either California or urban and rural low-income Latino populations.

Among Latino immigrants, such as many in this group of young Mexican-American mothers, acculturation to U.S. culture is associated with poorer dietary habits, less physical activity, and higher rates of obesity than pre-acculturation. With higher levels of acculturation and subsequent generations in the United States, Latinos tend to increase consumption of fast food, convenience foods, salty snacks, simple sugars, chocolate candy, and total, added, and saturated fats. Because the habits of children are largely developed and maintained in the home, parent feeding practices were of particular concern for these immigrant families.

In these families, few parenting differences were found between past and current food-insecure mothers. The study’s sample size was small, and the study was limited by the multiple tests that were done on the data that could have created some false positive findings. However, trends emerged among mothers who reported experiences with past food insecurity that suggest possible differences in factors associated with obesity. The study observed a tendency for past food-insecure mothers to be less likely to be obese than mothers who had not experienced food insecurity in their childhood. Past food-insecure mothers were less likely to believe that their children should eat all of the food on their plates. They also were more likely to serve their children larger portions of some foods, notably orange juice and corn. In addition, they were less likely to worry that their children ate too much food.

Mothers who reported experiencing food insecurity were not more likely to be obese than food-secure mothers, which is a contrast to other studies showing a significant association between food insecurity and obesity in Latino mothers. A mother who reported currently experiencing food insecurity was less likely to use restrictive child feeding practices and more likely to use food as a reward for her child. Specifically, she was somewhat less likely to keep track of the sweets her child eats and to tell her child that she/he cannot go out to play or watch television until she/he eats. However, these mothers were somewhat more likely to offer their children their favorite foods as a reward for good behavior. At the same time, these mothers were more likely to worry that their children were eating too much food. Accordingly, these mothers had a tendency to be more likely to serve their children smaller portions of higher fat, energy-dense foods, specifically French fries and chicken nuggets. More of these mothers reported that a physician or health professional had told them that their children were overweight (27 percent versus 6 percent for food-secure mothers).

Other research has corroborated that current food insecurity may affect the variety of foods available and consumed by families. Thus, it may be natural for mothers to overfeed their children when food is available while limiting food in times of food insecurity. From this small study, current food insecurity, as compared with past food insecurity, appears to be more associated with certain child feeding practices that are theoretically associated with childhood overweight.

One of the most dramatic findings is the low level of concern for pediatric overweight expressed by the mothers of overweight children. Studies have shown that Latino mothers associate thinness with poor health and being prone to disease. Other studies of food insecurity among Latino immigrants have confirmed the mismatch between childhood overweight and maternal concern. WIC nutrition educators and participants have previously reported that mothers typically disagree with educators’ assessments of overweight. In a setting where such a high percentage of children are overweight, mothers may assume that higher weight levels are “normal” weight. Further, mothers may be reluctant to label or believe that their children are overweight. Finally, mothers and parents reportedly give explanations or excuses for their children’s weight status, citing that they will “grow out of it” or that overweight is determined by genetics.