Child obesity in the U.S. is a significant public health issue, particularly among children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Thus, the roles of parents’ human and financial capital and racial and ethnic background have become important topics of social science and public health research on child obesity. Less often discussed, however, is the role of family structure, which is an important predictor of child well-being and indicator of family socioeconomic status. The goal of this study, therefore, is to investigate how preschool aged children’s risk of obesity varies across a diverse set of family structures and whether these differences in obesity are moderated by family poverty status and the mothers’ education. Using a large nationally representative sample of children from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study – Birth Cohort, we find that preschoolers raised by two biological cohabiting parents or a relative caregiver (generally the grandparent) have greater odds of being obese than children raised by married biological parents. Also, poor children in married biological parent households and non-poor children in married step parent households have greater obesity risks, while poor children in father only, unmarried step, and married step parent families actually have lower odds of obesity than children in non-poor intact households. The implications of these findings for policy and future research linking family structure to children’s weight status are discussed.

Key Take Away Points

  • Using nuanced measures of family structure, we find that preschool children living with two cohabiting biological parents, a relative caregiver, and married step parent family have a greater likelihood of being obese than children in married two biological parent households.

  • The association between other family types, including single, unmarried step, and father only households and child obesity appeared in the unadjusted models, but was nullified by the inclusion of relevant covariates.

  • In the presence of other controls, poverty was not significantly associated with children’s odds of obesity, but poor children in married biological parent households also had a greater likelihood of being obese than non-poor children raised in the same family type.

Author Biography

Jennifer Augustine is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Houston. Dr. Augustine's research focuses on how advantages and disadvantages in health and wellbeing are transferred across generations in U.S. families, with a special interest in the connection between parents’ socioeconomic circumstances and children’s early health and learning. Rachel Tolbert Kimbro is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Rice University and the Director of the Urban Health Program at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research. Dr. Kimbro's research focuses on racial and ethnic health disparities and family influences on health behaviors and outcomes.