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Parental Eating Habits Don’t Rub Off on Kids

by The Kid's Doctor Staff

Parent’s eating habits don’t seem to influence their children’s food choices as much as experts have thought, new research suggests.

“We found that the resemblance in dietary intake between parents and children is weak,” said the senior author of the study, Dr. Youfa Wang, an associate professor of international health and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. However, he added, “there is some effect.”

Wang found that children whose parents at a healthier diet, which was a small minority, were three times more likely to have a healthy diet compared to the kids whose parents did not have a very healthy diet. Overall he said that “it seems that parents’ influence is quite moderate, much weaker than what many people have believed.”

The findings of the study, which is published online in Social Science & Medicine, suggest that other factors, such as peer influence and television viewing may be more powerful influences on what children eat.

For the study, Wang and his researchers evaluated two 24-hour dietary recalls from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Continuing Survey of Food Intake by Individuals 1994-1996. In all, they looked at the food intake of nearly 5,000 people (1,061 fathers, 1,230 mothers, 1,370 sons and 1,322 daughters).

The researchers compared intake and assessed diet quality based on the USDA Healthy Eating Index Score. A perfect score is 100 and the index takes into account a person’s intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy products, meats, beans, oils, saturated fat and sodium.

The average scores of the parents and children were about 48 to 50, well below the score of above 80 that the USDA deems a good diet. Only 10 percent of Americans got a score greater than 80 in 2000, according to the USDA.

Wang then looked at the overall correlation between children’s and parents’ intake. “The variation in children’s diet that could be explained by their parent’s diet was less than 10 percent,” Wang said, “and 90 percent of the variations in the children’s diet were explained by factors other than the parent’s diet.”

The results are something of a surprise, said Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis and past president of the American Dietetic Association.

So what’s a parent to do? After brushing up on your own diet, “take the kids to the store, let them see and smell the produce,” Diekman suggested. “Talk about how you choose meat and how you decide which dairy foods to buy.”

Wang agreed that parents should aim to eat healthier themselves and encourage their children to follow similar habits. Schools, too, need to make a stronger commitment to getting the healthy diet message out, Wang said.

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