Many of our clients who are parents going through divorce or separation are rightly concerned about how their children will navigate the process of family breakdown. Obviously, the experience can have serious emotional and mental health ramifications for kids. But a new study of British children in these circumstances finds a correlation between parent breakup and physical health — specifically, childhood obesity.

Obesity develops over time, not immediately after separation

The researchers found no significant risk of obesity during the lead-up time to parent separation or immediately afterwards. But “in the longer term, the [body mass index, or] BMI of children whose parents separate significantly deviates from the BMI of children from intact families.” Childhood obesity is more likely to develop over the entire process of parental separation over time and is linked to lifelong health problems.

The risk is higher when the parents separate before children reach age six.

The authors noted that parental separation can have negative effects on kids’ physical health because of stress, changes in home environments and financial strain and that the study results are consistent with “previous findings that what happens in the home and family environment is crucially important for child (becoming) overweight.”

Parental resources may decrease after creating two households on the same budget where previously there was one, directly impacting the nutritional value of food purchased for the children by one parent as well as the availability of exercise and sports programs for kids. If a parent needs to work more, they may have less time to cook healthy meals and establish regular mealtimes, all leading to more take-out or processed meals.

The researchers also reviewed findings about the impact of stress and instability on kids during parent separation. Emotional stress can change kids’ “eating behavior” and disrupt routines.

Takeaways for parents

For our readers and clients who are parents facing separation, this study is a reminder to attempt to keep children — especially young children — on regular routines throughout the process and to concentrate on ways to provide healthy nutrition and ways to exercise.