Dec. 10, 2010 -- A new study suggests that parents have minimal sway over their children’s diets.
The review, which flouts conventional wisdom and previous research, takes a new look at studies of family eating habits published since 1980 and finds little similarity between the diets of children and their parents.
“This result contradicts other studies,” says Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, a professor of nutrition and sociology at New York University, who was not involved in the current research.
Nestle says previous work has found that parents have a good deal of influence over what their kids eat, but that the degree of influence lessens as kids move into their tweens and teens.
“If it’s little kids, parents have plenty of influence. High school? Forget it. Peer pressure is overwhelming,” Nestle says.
Still, she thinks the study, which is published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, may have captured an important shift in how children make choices about what to eat.
“It’s certainly true that advertisers have penetrated the consciousness of even very young children, as any parent of a 2-year-old can attest,” Nestle says. “The very purpose of marketing to children is to convince kids that they are supposed to eat ‘kids’ food,’ not what their parents eat, and that they know more about what they are supposed to eat than their parents do. So if this study is correct, they are succeeding.”
Kids, Parents, and Eating Habits
The authors of the new review, who were from Johns Hopkins University and the National Institutes of Health, combed the scientific literature for studies that assessed the diets of parents and their children from January 1980 through September 2009. Only 24 were deemed to be strong enough to be included.
The reviewers point out that many of the studies were small, which may weaken the statistical power of the results, and that the conclusions of the individual studies varied considerably.
When taken together, though, researchers say it appears that kids eat the same percent of recommended daily calories and fat as their parents only about 20% of the time.
“It was a weak to moderate association,” says May A. Beydoun, PhD, staff scientist at the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore, who co-authored the study.
Beydoun thinks several factors probably contributed to the results.
“It’s possible that there are only one or two shared meals with parents each day, especially if kids are eating at school, and that has an effect, or that parents who are trying to save money are giving their kids different foods than they eat,” Beydoun says, “or because of the increasing influence of marketing that kids are making more of their own food choices.”
The study’s authors also found that children eat more like their parents in other countries, particularly non-European ones. A study in Brazil, for example, found that kids eat like their mothers do about 40% of the time.
But other nutrition experts said they were perplexed by the conclusions of the review.
“I’m a little surprised, actually,” says Susan H. Babey, PhD, a research scientist for the Center for Health Policy Research at the University of California at Los Angeles. She published a policy brief in 2009 that found that teenagers were more likely to copy either the good or bad nutrition habits of their parents.
“It does make me wonder what’s causing the difference in these findings,” Babey says.
Her paper found, for instance, that adolescents whose parents drink soda daily were 40% more likely to drink it themselves compared to kids whose parents did not drink soda. And children whose parents ate at least five daily servings of fruits and vegetables were at least 16% more likely get their recommended amounts, compared to children whose parents didn’t eat at least five servings of those foods.
“Our data suggests, and it’s my own personal belief as a parent that I have some control over what my kids eat. I’m not really sure how to reconcile the two,” she says.
And other experts cautioned that it is very difficult to make any assessments about how kids eat compared to their parents, largely because of the difficulty of getting kids to accurately remember the details of meals and snacks.
But even with questions about the reliability of the data, they say the study’s conclusions rang true.
“I’m doing a large childhood obesity study, and we were just talking about this the other day, how kids don’t eat like their parents,” says Kerri N. Boutelle, PhD, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of California at San Diego, who was not involved with the study.
“My 9-year-old daughter is eating a peanut butter sandwich for lunch, and I’m having a salad,” Boutelle says. “And kids eat the same things over and over again, while adults won’t. So I’d say no, kids don’t really eat like their parents, especially as they get older.”