The way parents eat may have little impact on their children’s diets, a new study suggests.
Using survey data from nearly 1,500 U.S. families, researchers found that parents’ diets tended to show little resemblance to their children’s, regardless of the children’s age. And younger children were even less likely than teenagers to have eating habits similar to those of their parents.
The findings, published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, run counter to the idea that parents are prime role models for their children when it comes to healthy eating.
Instead, researchers say, a number of outside influences - such as TV and friends - may dilute the impact parents have on their children’s food choices.
“Our findings have a number of important public health implications,”
researcher Dr. Youfa Wang, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore, said in a written statement.
Among these, Wang said, is that anti-obesity programs that target parents may not have a strong effect on children’s diets.
“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 co-researcher Dr. May A. Bedouin, also at Johns Hopkins.
That said, the researchers note, some parents seem to have relatively more influence. Compared with white and African-American youngsters, children of other ethnicities had diets that were more similar to their parents.’ And in general, mothers’ eating habits appeared to have a bigger impact than fathers’ diets did.
The gaps between parents’ and children’s diets were seen regardless of parents’ income and education levels, however.
It’s not clear why children’s diets so often bore little resemblance to those of their parents, according to the researchers. Some older studies had found closer connections between parents’ and children’s eating habits.
“We suspect that the child-parent resemblance in dietary intake may have become weaker over time,” Wang said, “due to the growing influence of other factors outside of the family.”
SOURCE: Social Science and Medicine, May 25, 2009.