Differing Perceptions and Implementations of Recommended Childhood Obesity Prevention Messages Among Mothers

vollmerRachel L. Vollmer is a graduate research assistant and doctoral candidate at the Department of Nutrition Science at University of Connecticut. Rachel is also a Registered Dietitian (RD) with a BS in Foods, Nutrition, and Dietetics from Bradley University and a MS in Family and Consumer Sciences from Eastern Illinois University. From her exposure to the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, WIC (Women, Infants, and Children), and other various nutrition education programs, Rachel became interested in the interactions between parenting and food/mealtimes. More specifically, she is interested in how parents influence their young child’s food preferences, eating behaviors, physical activity, and weight. Her recent paper, titled “A Pilot Study To Explore How Low-Income Mothers of Different Ethnic/Racial Backgrounds Perceive and Implement Recommended Childhood Obesity Prevention Messages” was published in the journal Childhood Obesity.

Background of the study

While many parents are aware of the childhood obesity issue in this country, they are bombarded with childhood obesity prevention messages or other nutrition/physical activity messages. We really don’t know what parents or families are doing with these messages or if they are even interpreting them correctly. Additionally, the disparities in obesity prevalence among children of different racial/ethnic backgrounds is very intriguing. We thought that perhaps the way parents interpret or implement these obesity prevention messages may give an explanation for those disparities in childhood obesity prevalence rates, specifically, parents of either white, non-Hispanic, black, non-Hispanic, or Hispanic race/ethnicity.

Key findings

We found that most mothers in our study were familiar with the obesity prevention messages, however, it wasn’t clear to them how these messages may affect a child’s weight. Also, it was interesting to us that mothers thought it was important for their children to follow these messages, but not necessarily for themselves (e.g. “Eat breakfast everyday”).

We did find differences in the way that mothers reported they feed their children. White mothers tended to emphasize their control over their child’s food or mealtime. For example, they didn’t trust their child’s feelings of hunger or fullness so they were more likely to control their child’s portion sizes. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Hispanic and black mothers reported behaviors that were more indulgent, for example, black mothers reported that they would serve a child a larger portion size of a food if they knew the child liked that food.


While it’s encouraging that most mothers were familiar with the common obesity prevention messages, there is some room for improvement. When obesity prevention messages are developed, it’s important to consider how they will be interpreted and implemented by different parents, and perhaps the “one size fits all” approach, isn’t the most effective. Using the “Watch your portion sizes” example, white mothers may need more specificity about trusting their child’s hunger and fullness feelings in order to be less controlling, while black mothers may need more emphasis on being less indulgent and what are appropriate portion sizes are for children.

Parental awareness

Most US parents are aware that childhood obesity is an issue, thanks in part to Mrs. Obama’s Let’s Move campaign and the establishment of the US Childhood Obesity Task Force. What many parents, and health professionals alike, don’t realize is how their feeding behaviors may be affecting their child’s food preferences, dietary intake, and activity behaviors in the long term.

Next steps

This study gave us insight on how mothers feed their children and how they interpret common childhood obesity prevention messages. This provided us with several different avenues to explore. Since we’ve done this study, we’ve decided to focus more on the parenting aspect of feeding children as well as including fathers in our samples. The next steps include finding out about more specific behaviors of parents and children at mealtimes and how we can educate parents about obesity prevention as it relates to parenting and feeding their children at mealtimes.

About the department

The Nutritional Sciences Department at the University of Connecticut, established in 1970, has a distinguished record of teaching, research, and public service. Faculty, professional, and support staff are dedicated to excellence in undergraduate and graduate education. Each student has the opportunity for personal growth through the balance of strong academic programs, independent studies, field experiences, and for those who meet the requirements the department’s Honors Program. Nutritional Sciences (NUSC) integrates knowledge of the use of foods and nutrients by cells, individuals, and communities to promote optimal health and treatment of disease.