The limitations of parental influence on children's eating habits
Children are notoriously picky about what they will eat and parents usually get the blame for this. After all, as primary caregivers, parents surely have the strongest influence on their children's eating behaviour.
Research shows that it's not quite as simple as this. Previous findings in parent-child resemblance in dietary intakes have been mixed and this led to a review by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who used worldwide studies to assess the degree of association and similarity between the dietary intake of children and their parents.
The lead author of the study, published in the December edition of the US Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, was Youfa Wang, an associate professor in the Department of International Health at the Bloomberg School.
Professor Wang found that contrary to popular belief there was very little association between parent-child dietary intake. He attributes this to the fact that children's eating habits are influenced by a number of complex factors, of which family environment plays only a partial role.
More attention should be given, he said, to the influence of other players on children's eating patterns, such as that of schools, the local food environment, peer influence, government guidelines and policies that regulate school meals.
Professor Wang also felt that advertising was an important factor, with its influence on the broader food environment, food production and distribution.
Although Professor Wang and his colleagues concluded that parents did not play a major part in determining their children's eating habits, it was clear that he thought that they ought to be more influential. Parents need to be better empowered to be good role models and help their children eat a healthy diet, he said.
Professor Wang's study involved colleagues from the US National Institute on Aging and the University of Zaragoza in Spain. Researchers systematically reviewed and analysed relevant studies that had been published in different countries between 1980 and 2009. Correlations were compared between the dietary intakes of parent-child pairs, for instant between mother and daughter and father and son. These comparisons involved different world regions and different dietary assessment methods over a period of time.
The researchers found differences in parent-child dietary intake resemblance across nutrients and dietary assessment approaches. In addition, the meta-analysis provided evidence that correlations have become weaker over time. This is particularly evident in the US, where compared to non-European countries, parent-child correlations in intakes of energy and total fat seem to be weaker.
Dr May Beydoun , a co-author of the report and staff scientist at the National Institute on Aging, commented that the study will help to enhance our understanding of the factors that may affect the dietary intake patterns of children. It will also provide useful insights for developing effective intervention programmes to promote healthy eating in young people.
However, she felt that more research was still needed to ensure that parents were better able to lead their children towards good eating habits as they approached adult life.