Parenthood appears to worsen the eating habits of mothers, but not fathers.
New research from the University of Minnesota found that moms with young children consumed an average of 400 more calories a day than non-mothers.
The data comes from the university's Project Eat — a longitudinal study that has followed kids from middle school into high school and young adulthood. This latest report tracked the eating and exercise patterns of nearly 1,600 women and men.
Co-author of the report, Jerica Berge, said all of the women in the study ate similar amounts of healthy foods. But moms consumed more sugar and saturated fat.
"They were having more sugar-sweetened pops and beverages. They had higher fat intake. And then more of just overall calories than the non-mothers," said Berge.
Mothers also had higher body mass indexes (BMI) — a calculation of height and weight that determines body fat.
It's possible that the higher BMI among moms is a reflection of postpartum weight retention. A majority of the mothers in the study had children who were 1 year old or younger.
But Berge suspects that's not the main reason for their higher BMI.
"Their dietary intake was still different, and so the higher amounts of the unhealthy foods and nutrients is still going to be a problem in the future if they still maintain that level," said Berge. "It's still going to contribute to weight in the long run or unhealthy dietary patterns."
Berge said the data cannot be generalized to draw conclusions about parents with older children.
University researchers don't know what accounts for the differences in diet between mothers and non-mothers because they didn't ask their subjects to explain their eating choices. But Berge hypothesizes that moms may be too busy tending to the needs of their kids to make healthy meals for themselves.
"So it might be that they're eating the chicken nuggets, the macaroni and cheese because they have to chose quick time alternatives because they don't feel they have the time to do the healthy meals all the time. And their BMI is probably where it's reflected," said Berge.
As for their higher consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, Berge said that could be related to fatigue.
"You could hypothesize that they were trying to drink more caffeine to stay awake because they're tired from the demands of parenting," said Berge. "But it was all sugared drinks so it could be you know like the Kool-Aids and lemonades too that maybe they were having with their kids."
The study found no differences in diets or BMI between fathers and men who did not have children. But dads did report less physical activity than than non-parent males. Mothers also reported less physical activity than women without children.
Berge said the findings show that the demands of early parenthood can significantly alter the health behaviors of parents, especially mothers.
"Really, I think the take-home message is we found a time that's particularly a high-risk time and we need to find ways to support parents to be able to pay attention to their health, as well as face the demands of parenting," said Berge.
The study authors urge pediatricians and other health care providers to use these findings as a way to discuss diet and exercise with new mothers and fathers, so the parents improve their own health and model healthy behaviors for their children.
The study is published online in the journal Pediatrics.