8: No. 3, May 2011
Katherine W. Bauer, PhD, MS; Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD, MPH, RD; Jayne A. Fulkerson, PhD; Mary Story, PhD, RD
Suggested citation for this article: Bauer KW, Neumark-Sztainer D, Fulkerson JA, Story M. Adolescent girls’ weight-related family environments,
Minnesota. Prev Chronic Dis 2011;8(3):A68. http://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2011/may/10_0025.htm. Accessed [date].
Significant sociodemographic disparities exist in the
prevalence of obesity among adolescent girls, and in girls’ participation in
physical activity, sedentary activity, and healthful dietary intake.
However, little is known of how factors in the family environment associated
with weight and behavior vary by sociodemographic groups. We examined
differences and similarities in the weight-related family environments of
adolescent girls by race/ethnicity, parental educational attainment, and US
nativity. Data are from the baseline assessment of 253 parent/daughter
dyads. Parents completed survey items on the family environment; parents and
girls reported their sociodemographic characteristics. Hierarchical
regression models were used to test relationships between the family
environment and sociodemographic characteristics. Parents of Asian girls
reported qualities supportive of physical activity and healthy eating.
Higher parental education was associated with more parental modeling of and
support for physical activity and greater frequency of family meals. Parents
of foreign-born girls reported having fewer televisions in the home, more
frequent family meals, and fewer fast-food family meals. Understanding
sociodemographic differences in the family environments of adolescent girls
can inform the development of obesity prevention programs and reduce
disparities in adolescents’ weight status, physical activity, sedentary
behavior, and healthful dietary intake.
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More than one-third of adolescent girls are overweight or obese, and large sociodemographic disparities have been observed
both in the prevalence of overweight and obesity among girls and in girls’ participation in physical activity, sedentary behavior, and healthful
diet (1-3). A growing body of evidence
has demonstrated the role of the family environment in
adolescents’ weight and weight-related behavior (4-6). Factors included are parental modeling and
encouragement of physical activity, television use, and healthful diet, and
resources available in the home such as fruits and vegetables. However, little is known about how families from varied sociodemographic backgrounds may differentially support or inhibit
girls’ healthful behavior. Identifying differences in adolescent girls’ weight-related family environments by sociodemographic characteristics can help guide the targeting and tailoring of obesity prevention efforts to specific populations.
A small number of studies have identified differences in the family environment relevant to adolescents’ physical activity, television use, and dietary behavior by sociodemographic characteristics (7-10). Although these studies identified differences between families by race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status (SES), all examined a limited number of family environment characteristics and all but
1 used adolescents’ report of the family environment rather
than the parents’ report. Parents’ report of their own behavior and the resources available in their home may be more accurate than adolescents’ report (8,11) and can be informative for the development of interventions targeting parents. Therefore, our goal was to examine how weight-related factors in adolescent girls’ family environments differ by girls’ race/ethnicity, US nativity, and parental education, a commonly used indicator of SES (9,12).
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This cross-sectional study used data from the baseline assessment of adolescent girls in
Minnesota who participated in the New Moves intervention during either the 2007-2008 or 2008-2009 school year. New Moves is a school-based physical activity and nutrition intervention implemented primarily through an all-girls physical education class (13).
Girls were in grades 9 through 12 and had a mean age of 15.7 years (range,
12.0-20.3). Schools that participated in the study were in urban and first-ring suburban areas.
On average, 56% of students in the 12 schools that participated in the study were eligible for free or reduced-price school breakfast and lunch. The New Moves intervention was advertised to all girls in the school, and recruitment materials were designed to appeal to girls who were inactive and not comfortable being physically active, but who had a desire to be healthier. Girls were excluded from the study if they reported participating in more than 1 hour of physical activity per day or reported
eating disorder behavior (vomiting or laxative use more than 1 time per week) on the basis of a short screening questionnaire. Parents of the 356 girls who participated in the New Moves study were asked to complete a survey assessing the family environment at baseline; 71% responded, resulting in 253 parent-girl dyads. Three of these parent-girl dyads were excluded because of missing sociodemographic data. Girls completed study measures at
university clinic or their high school. Parents were mailed a recruitment packet including the family environment survey after their daughter enrolled in New Moves. Most parents completed the survey and returned it by mail, although 2% of parents completed the survey by telephone with the assistance of research staff. University of Minnesota’s institutional review board and each participating school district approved the study. Girls and parents provided consent
or assent for their
participation in the study.
Survey items completed by parents assessed parental modeling of and support for girls’ physical activity, television use, soft drink
consumption, fruit and vegetable consumption, and home resources associated with these behaviors
(Appendix). Most of the items have been used in previous
studies, and many have been tested for validity and reliability, or both, and
psychometric information is reported when available.
Parental education was determined by the question, “How far did you go in school? (Indicate highest level).” Response options
were “did not finish high school,” “finished high school or got GED (general
educational development certificate),” “did some college or training after high school,”
“graduated from a college or university,” and “professional training beyond a 4-year college degree.” The highest 2 categories were combined in analyses to create a
“college and postgraduate training” category.
Girls’ race/ethnicity was assessed by girls’ response to the item,
“Do you think of yourself as . . .”. Response options were white, black or African American, Asian, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, American Indian or Alaska Native, Hispanic or Latina, and
mixed/other. Girls could select all categories that applied to them. If a girl selected 2 categories including white, she was categorized as
the nonwhite race/ethnicity. If a girl selected 2 racial/ethnic categories that did
not include white or selected 3 or more categories, she was included in the mixed/other category.
Due to the small number, girls who selected American Indian or Alaska Native were included in the mixed/other category. Girls’
US nativity was assessed with their response to the question,
“Were you born in the United States?” (yes/no).
Separate hierarchical multiple regression models were used to examine the relationships between families’ sociodemographic characteristics and family environment constructs. Two regression models were developed:
1 with only the sociodemographic characteristic of interest as the predictor, and
1 with all sociodemographic characteristics simultaneously entered into each model to obtain the independent association between the characteristic of interest and the family environment
component. The patterns of relationships between the sociodemographic characteristics and the family environment variables were similar in both the single predictor and mutually adjusted analyses; therefore, only the results from the adjusted analyses are presented.
To account for potential clustering of family environment factors among girls who attended school together, a school-level variable was included in the regression models as a random effect. Adjusted means were calculated for each level of each
sociodemographic characteristic. If the F statistic was significant, an
adjusted Tukey-Kramer test was used to highlight sources of differences between the adjusted means. A linear test of trend was used to determine whether there was a significant linear relationship between the family environment components over the 4 levels of parental
education. In our study, at 80% power, a difference of 0.5 standard
deviations could be detected between typical subgroups of approximately 65
people. We used SAS version 9.2 (SAS Institute, Inc, Cary, North Carolina) to conduct analyses.
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The study sample was racially and ethnically diverse: 30% of girls reported that they were white; 26%, African American/black; 11%, Hispanic; 24%, Asian; and 10% of mixed race or another racial/ethnic group. Among Asian girls, 87% self-identified as Hmong. Parents’
education was also diverse: 28% of parents had not completed high school, 21% had only a high school diploma, 26% attended some college, and 25% completed college or had postgraduate training. Approximately one-fourth (23%) of the girls were foreign-born. Mothers were the most common respondents to the parent survey (80%).
Family environment by girls’ race/ethnicity
Several elements of the family environment differed by girls’ race/ethnicity after adjustment for parental education and US nativity
(Table 1). Overall, parents
of Asian girls were most likely to provide a family environment supportive of
physical activity and healthful eating. Asian girls were the least likely to
have a television in their bedroom, and their parents reported watching
television the least frequently,
having the least amount of unhealthy food in their home, consuming the most
servings of fruits and vegetables, and consumed the least number of soft drinks compared with parents of girls of other race/ethnicities.
Overall, parents of Hispanic girls and girls of mixed/other race, and to a
lesser extent, parents of African American and white girls, reported fewer family environment characteristics that are supportive
of physical activity, healthful diet, and limiting television use. For example, parents of African American and Hispanic adolescents reported the fewest number of physical activity resources in the home, and Hispanic parents and parents of girls of mixed/other race consumed soft drinks the most frequently.
Family environment by parental education
Girls’ family environments also differed by parental education after adjustment for race/ethnicity and
(Table 2). All of the physical activity–related family environment components were positively associated with parental education, including availability of physical activity resources, parental modeling of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA),
and family support for their daughter’s physical activity. Several elements of
the family environment related to food behaviors were associated with parental
education, including less parental modeling of soft drink intake and greater
frequency of family meals. Parents who did not complete high school reported
having family meals 3.8 times per week, compared with 5.4 times per week among
parents with a college degree or higher. The percentage of girls with
televisions in their bedrooms was associated with parental education. Girls with
parents who had either the lowest or highest level of education
were less likely to have a television in their bedroom than girls with
parents who either completed high school or had some college.
Family environment by girls’ nativity
Parents of foreign-born girls reported several differences in their family environment compared with parents of girls who were born in the United States, after controlling for race/ethnicity and parental education
(Table 3). For example, parents of foreign-born girls
reported having fewer televisions in their home and having more frequent family
meals. In contrast, parents of foreign-born girls were less likely to report
providing support for their daughters’ physical activity and healthful eating.
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Although many aspects of girls’ weight-related family environments were similar across sociodemographic groups, several noteworthy differences emerged. Overall, findings suggest that parents of Asian girls, parents with higher
education, and parents who have immigrated to the United States since their daughter’s birth may be more able to provide their daughters with a family environment supportive of physical activity
and healthful diet, and limiting of
sedentary behavior. Understanding these sociodemographic differences in the weight-related family environments of youth
aids in the development of interventions to address families’ specific needs and, ultimately,
in the reduction of sociodemographic disparities in obesity among adolescents.
Specifically, parents of Asian girls reported providing a more health-promoting environment for their daughters.
They were less likely to have a television in their daughters’ bedroom, had less unhealthful food in the home,
and modeled greater consumption of fruits and vegetables and less consumption of soft drinks. Using nationally representative data, Gordon-Larsen et al (21) found that Asian girls
reported viewing significantly fewer hours of television than African American and Hispanic adolescent girls. This racial disparity in girls’ television use may in part be due to the differences identified in our study, including less parental modeling of television use and fewer televisions available in the homes of Asian girls. These findings suggest that obesity prevention interventions that aim to modify the family environment and help both parents and adolescents improve their
physical activity and diet may see the greatest benefit from recognizing diversity in families’ cultural norms around supporting physical activity, television use, and healthful
diet and developing intervention components that are culturally appropriate and relevant.
Parental education was positively associated with the presence of health-supportive factors in the family environment, including parental modeling of and support for physical activity and
healthful eating and having frequent family meals. The associations found between parental education and home physical activity resources, parental
physical activity, and parental soft drink consumption are similar to the findings of previous studies that noted that families with higher parental education
or SES provided
multiple resources to support their children’s physical activity and
healthful eating (9). The positive associations found between parental education and a supportive family environment may
aid in understanding the findings of other studies that adolescents whose parents have higher levels of education engage in more physical activity and have healthier dietary habits (22).
Despite evidence that adolescents whose parents have lower education are more likely to watch television than adolescents with parents of higher
education (23), we saw few associations between parental education and factors in the family environment related to television use. Therefore, differences in adolescents’ television use by SES may be attributable to factors in the home or outside of the home not assessed in the current study, such as amount of
unsupervised time at home or lack of community-based opportunities for adolescents after school or on weekends in low-SES neighborhoods. In light of the associations observed between adolescents’ television use and weight (24), research is needed to understand the factors that contribute to excessive television use among lower SES youth in order to develop policies and programs that encourage adolescents to be physically active in their leisure time.
One notable observation from our study is the nonlinear relationship between parental education and the presence of a television in girls’ bedrooms.
This finding differs from that of a previous study in which adolescents whose parents had less
education were more likely to have a television in their bedroom compared with adolescents whose parents had
education (7). The low prevalence of a television in the bedroom at both the low and high levels of parental education seen
in our study may reflect different forces: families from lower-SES backgrounds may find televisions too expensive, and parents of higher
education may be more likely to heed warnings to restrict televisions in children’s bedrooms. Despite increasing efforts to inform parents of the detrimental effect that excessive television use can have on children’s health, parental encouragement for their daughters to limit television use was low and did not differ by any
of the sociodemographic characteristics we assessed. Previous studies have observed that the presence of familial rules and restrictions on television use are associated with less television use among younger children (25), but parents of increasingly independent adolescents may need alternative strategies to limit
their children's television use.
Findings that parents of girls born outside the United States provide many resources to support their daughters’ participation in physical activity and healthful
dietary practices align with previous research that showed that adolescents of white, African American, and Asian descent born outside the United States were less likely to watch excessive television (26), and many adolescents born outside the United States consume
more healthful diets (27) than their US-born peers. In contrast,
families of foreign-born girls were less likely to report providing explicit support for their daughter’s physical activity and
healthful eating. Further research is needed to understand the cultural, social, or economic mechanisms that contribute to these findings. Understanding why certain families choose not to or are unable to provide logistic or emotional support for their children’s health behaviors may guide interventions to help such families. However, as a whole, these results
indicate that practitioners need to support the families of recent immigrants in maintaining a resource-rich family environment
to avoid the development of unhealthy weight-related behaviors that foreign-born adolescents
often adopt as they acculturate to US society (28).
This is one of the few studies that has collected data on the weight-related family environment from parents rather than from adolescents (29). Parents’ and adolescents’ reports of their family environment have been found to be discrepant (30), and it has been hypothesized that parents may provide a more valid assessment of their own behavior and other aspects of the family environment
such as food purchases (8). Additionally, parents’
perceptions of the family environment play a critical, yet less understood role
in adolescents’ behavior, and data collected from parents can be used to develop programs to help parents improve their family environment.
A limitation of our study is that parent education was the only marker of family SES, which may not fully reflect a families’ socioeconomic position. The inclusion of multiple measures of SES, including parental occupation and household income, would have allowed for a more complete understanding of girls’ family environments. Additionally, differences observed in parents’ report of the family environment by sociodemographic
characteristics may reflect differences in understanding or interpretation of
survey items. This may be especially true for parents who are not proficient in
English. Future research exploring family environments may benefit from
qualitative research and extensive pilot testing to ensure that survey items are
appropriate and valid for the intended population; offering participants the
ability to complete study measures in their native language could also aid
research. Finally, social desirability bias may have been differential across
sociodemographic groups, potentially biasing study findings.
Overall, our study identified several differences in adolescent girls’ family environments by race/ethnicity, parental education, and US nativity. These findings suggest that interventions that aim to help parents support and model healthful behavior for their adolescents, as well as increase resources in the home that aid in healthful eating and
dietary behaviors, would benefit from targeting specific populations
that have the most potential for improvement and
from tailoring intervention materials to the needs of those families. Additionally, identifying population subgroups that provide a family environment that is supportive of physical activity and healthful
eating behaviors and discourages sedentary behavior, such as Asian families and families who recently immigrated to the United States, can help elucidate what resources other families may need to maintain or develop a health-promoting family environment.
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This study was supported by grant no. R01 DK063107 (principal investigator:
D. Neumark-Sztainer) from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, National Institutes of Health, and the J.B. Hawley Student Research Awards, Division of Epidemiology and Community Health, University of Minnesota. The first author (K.B.) has been supported by the University of Minnesota Graduate School’s Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship and the Adolescent Health Protection Program (School
of Nursing, University of Minnesota) grant no. T01-DP000112 (principal investigator: L.
from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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Corresponding Author: Katherine W. Bauer, PhD, MS, Division of Epidemiology and Community Health, University of Minnesota, West Bank Office Bldg, 1300 S 2nd St, Ste 300, Minneapolis, MN 55454. Telephone: 612-624-8223. E-mail:
Author Affiliations: Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Mary Story, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota; Jayne A. Fulkerson, School of Nursing, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
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