The weight of work: The association between maternal employment and overweight in low- and middle-income countries

Vanessa M. Oddo, Sara N. Bleich, Keshia M. Pollack, Pamela J. Surkan, Noel T. Mueller, Jessica C. Jones-Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Background: Maternal employment has increased in low-and middle-income countries (LMIC) and is a hypothesized risk factor for maternal overweight due to increased income and behavioral changes related to time allocation. However, few studies have investigated this relationship in LMIC. Methods: Using cross-sectional samples from Demographic and Health Surveys, we investigated the association between maternal employment and overweight (body mass index [BMI] ≥ 25 kg/m2) among women in 38 LMIC (N = 162,768). We categorized mothers as formally employed, informally employed, or non-employed based on 4 indicators: employment status in the last 12 months; aggregate occupation category (skilled, unskilled); type of earnings (cash only, cash and in-kind, in-kind only, unpaid); and seasonality of employment (all year, seasonal/occasional employment). Formally employed women were largely employed year-round in skilled occupations and earned a wage (e.g. professional), whereas informally employed women were often irregularly employed in unskilled occupations and in some cases, were paid in-kind (e.g. domestic work). For within-country analyses, we used adjusted logistic regression models and included an interaction term to assess heterogeneity in the association by maternal education level. We then used meta-analysis and meta-regression to explore differences in the associations pooled across countries. Results: Compared to non-employed mothers, formally employed mothers had higher odds of overweight (pooled odds ratio [POR] = 1.3; 95% Confidence Interval [CI] 1.2, 1.4) whereas informally employed mothers, compared to non-employed mothers, had lower odds of overweight (POR = 0.72; 95% CI: 0.64, 0.81). In 14 LMIC, the association varied by education. In these countries, the magnitude of the formal employment-overweight association was larger for women with low education (POR = 1.5; 95% CI: 1.1, 1.9) compared to those with high education (POR = 1.2; 95% CI: 1.0, 1.3). Conclusions: Formally employed mothers in LMIC have higher odds of overweight and the association varies by educational attainment in 14 countries. This knowledge highlights the importance of workplace initiatives to reduce the risk of overweight among working women in LMIC.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number66
JournalInternational Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity
Issue number1
StatePublished - Oct 18 2017


  • Low- and middle-income countries
  • Maternal employment
  • Nutrition transition
  • Overweight

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Physical Therapy, Sports Therapy and Rehabilitation
  • Nutrition and Dietetics


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