Friday, May 29, 2009

Study-Parents have little influence on children's eating habits

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Here is the press release right from Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health (from

New study indicates that parents' influence on children's eating habits is small

The popular belief that healthy eating starts at home and that parents' dietary choices help children establish their nutritional beliefs and behaviors may need rethinking, according to a study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. An examination of dietary intakes and patterns among U.S. families found that the resemblance between children's and their parents' eating habits is weak. The results are published in the May 25, 2009, issue of Social Science and Medicine.

"Child-parent dietary resemblance in the U.S. is relatively weak, and varies by nutrients and food groups and by the types of parent-child dyads and social demographic characteristics such as age, gender and family income," said Youfa Wang, MD, PhD, senior author of the study and associate professor with the Bloomberg School's Center for Human Nutrition. "When looking at overall diet quality, parent-child correlation in healthy eating index score was similar for both younger and older children. To our knowledge, this is the first such study that examined the similarities between children's and their parents' dietary intakes in the United States based on nationally representative data. Our findings indicate that factors other than family and parental eating behaviors may play an important role in affecting American children's dietary intakes."

Researchers examined data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals, a nationally representative multi-stage sample of 16,103 people containing information about dietary intake, socioeconomic, demographic and health parameters surveyed from 1994 to 1996. Average dietary intake and dietary quality indicators were assessed using two 24-hour dietary recalls provided by study participants. Researchers also assessed the overall quality of the participating children's and their parents' diets based on the USDA 2005 Health Eating Index (HEI) along with a number of other covariates. They found that the correlations between children's and their parents' HEI scores ranged from 0.26 to 0.29 across various child-parent dyads such as mother-daughter and father-son; for total energy intake they were 0.14 to 0.29, and for fat intake, -0.04 to 0.28. The range of the correlation measure is between -1 and 1, while 0 means no resemblance and 1 indicates a perfect resemblance. The researchers also found some differences in the resemblance between different types of child-parent dyads and nutrient intakes, and by children's age and family income.

"Factors other than parental eating behaviors such as community and school, food environment, peer influence, television viewing, as well as individual factors such as self-image and self-esteem seem to play an important role in young people's dietary intake," said May A. Beydoun, PhD, co-author of the study and a former postdoctoral research fellow at the Bloomberg School.

"Our findings have a number of important public health implications. In particular, the overall weak to moderate parent-child resemblance in food groups, nutrients and healthy eating index scores suggest that interventions targeting parents could have only a moderate effect on improving their children's diet. Nevertheless, based on our findings stratified by population groups, for interventions targeting parents, those would be more effective when targeted at mothers, minority groups, and as early as possible in childhood. We suspect that the child-parent resemblance in dietary intake may have become weaker over time, due to the growing influence of other factors outside of the family," said Wang.

Ok, you know I'm going to offer my 2c, and here it is. This is NOT an excuse for parents to get (even more) lazy about feeding their kids, because "it doesn't matter anyway." I'm actually quite disappointed in the title of this press release, which may be the only part of the report that parents read. And what parent hearing this news wouldn't throw up his/her hands in disgust after years of trying to impart positive nutrition habits in the kids?

And the study says that "child-parent dietary resemblance is relatively weak." Well, isn't that to be expected? Children are *supposed* to eat differently than adults, in order to support healthy growth and development.

When I serve dinner, my plate looks different than my son's. We might all have a veggie burger (for example, last night I made broccoli-almond patties) and salad. My plate will have 5 times more salad than my son's -- he's THREE! His stomach is a fraction of the size of mine, which means that he eats less at every meal. It also means that requires a higher proportion of calorie dense food than I, or else the poor kid would be hungry every other hour. The nutrient profile will not be all that similar, but we still eat the same things. I know we're not THAT unconventional!

I think if different parameters were studied, such as the actual types of foods consumed (versus what they did: nutrients, food groups, and diet quality) food choice behaviors, we would see a much more positive correlation beween parents' and kids' eating habits.

Furthermore, the researchers did not report the differences between parents who have nutritious diets and parents who have poor diets. I can't know but I suspect that there is a HIGHER correlation in parent-child behaviors among the junk food group than the health food group. Which would mean that even if kids aren't eating as healthfully as their parents, the ones with parents who eat crap all day are more likely to do the same. Kids don't usually choose HEALTHIER foods than their parents, so no point in throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

If you look at the study, the main point is that external influences are playing a larger role than they used to, with regard to eating habits. Well, of course. It's no secret that our society has shifted, that families eat fewer meals together, that more people eat "on the go," and the power of junk-food advertising to children. This does NOT mean that parents can't have a very significant effect on their children's eating habits.

As a clinical outpatient dietitian years ago, I routinely saw children raised in traditional Indian homes (most were vegetarian). These kids ate what their parents ate: vegetable curries, dahl (lentils), chapati, rice, yogurt. Sure they ate chips and things, but the bulk of the foods they eat strongly mimic that of their parents. I also saw families where parents ate one way and kids another. It's just easier to make a box of mac and cheese for the kids while the parent eats a Lean Cuisine. That's the way many families operate... and it rarely has to do with nutrition. This could be a topic for a whole other post, but it's been shown that working parents give their kids less-than-optimal foods for reasons other than nutrition: guilt from being at work all day (so compensate by giving kids favorite foods), time (it's easier to pick up a Happy Meal than to cook a stir fry), control/behavior issues (parent at end of rope; quash the complaining/whining with comfort food), and degredation of values (in the 50's, you ate with your family and had a balanced meal. That's just how it was. That value is gone among most families).

Back to topic... again, these findings do not indicate that parents are powerless over influencing their kids to eat right.

Most of my readers are vegetarians or vegans, and I know some of you are parents. Do you really believe for a second that your child eats significantly more meat than you? Of COURSE the parent's influence is a strong factor!

I welcome your comments please!


rosiedias said...

Very informative. I work as a nutrition counselor at a local gym and I totally agree! By the way, I am not vegan but definitely am organic and follow a plant based diet. I find your site wonderful!


dreaminitvegan said...

Parents play a big role in what kids eat. I grew up eating a variety of foods. At dinner time we always had a salad, vegetable, rice/potatoes, animal protein. Lots of fruits were eaten, not alot of junk food by any means. As an adult, now vegan, my son is also growing up to eat a variety of healthy foods. He's 11 now and is constantly going through growth spurts so he eats more through out the day but it's not junk food.

I do have a friend who is now struggling to change the diet of her kids who are 12, 8 & 7 because they are and are becoming overweight. She always fed them differently than what she and her husband ate. Her husband is vegetarian and they've been raising their kids, for the most part that way but the kids don't eat that great. The kids don't eat any vegetables except, corn, carrots to snack on and french fries(not healthy), sometimes a small salad with alot of ranch dressing. Fruit they will actually eat. The dinners consist of, no joke, macaroni and cheese, pizza, eggs, taco's(a corn tortilla filled with cheese a some shredded lettuce), quesadilla's. There is barely any fiber in there diet. The parents have a completely different dinner than the kids and now it's a struggle that she has with them.

Anyways, parents play a big part in how their kids eat. Sorry I went on about this.

Kate said...

I would like to see a study that follows children further into adulthood. I was raised in a healthy home of while grains and lots of vegetables, while my husband was raised in a fairly unhealthy household. He craves foods that I can easily ignore, loves to snack, and while he is healthy eater now, it was much more of a struggle than it has ever been for me.

While this is completely anecdotal, I doubt this is unusual. When I was young I loved going to friends houses with sugary cereals and snacks, but as an adult, it's not something that I include in our home now.

The long-term effects of creating a nutritious home environment shouldn't be overlooked. Parents play a large role in determining how food is viewed by the child far into adulthood.

rosiedias said...

Oh boy, very true. I was raised with all whole foods and no snack foods or fast foods. I never really had a weight problem except for two years in college where I drank and ate fast food. I wrote about it on my own blog if you want to check it out...