parents don’t influence children’s eating habits

December 13, 2010

in culture,wellness

researchers from johns hopkins bloomberg school of health have bad news for parents: there’s a weak link between what a parent eats and what their kid does. they reviewed studies between 1980 and 2009 and found that:

“Contrary to popular belief, many studies from different countries, including the United States, have found a weak association between parent-child dietary intake. This is likely because young people’s eating patterns are influenced by many complex factors, and the family environment plays only a partial role. More attention should be given to the influence of the other players on children’s eating patterns such as that of schools, the local food environment and peer influence, government guidelines and policies that regulate school meals, and the broader food environment that is influenced by food production, distribution and advertising.”

i’m not completely surprised by these findings. i’ve seen it in my own kids. they crave what’s popular, tasty and limited. what did surprise me is that their research didn’t find children exhibiting their parents’ habits over time. speaking personally, i resisted my mother’s healthy eating standards growing up (no sugar cereal except on birthdays?! carrot sticks instead of potato chips?!), but today i find myself both living and teaching them to our kids.

what are your thoughts? are you surprised?


note: today obama signs into law the healthy hunger-free kids act, a fitting bookend to this research.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Paul Hebert December 13, 2010 at 11:01 am

Not surprised. But as you mentioned there’s no longitudinal data here – what happens when they are 14, 22, 44 – your own experience showed that the efforts put in by your parents were manifested when you were older. Children experiment – that’s what they do. But… the efforts between 0-7 are not wasted (I picked 7 ‘cuz that’s when the school environment typically gets some traction.) Ultimately, they come back to those values/lessons – good or bad.

I think it is somewhat misleading if not down right incorrect to say that parents eating habits have little effect.


fran December 13, 2010 at 12:11 pm

paul, i agree, though to be fair they do say they compared correlations “over time.” so, there may be some longitudinal research in there. still, i’d be keen to read more about the validity of what we hold to be true — that kids come back to the values we work to instill. or about when they do and when they don’t. i’ve asked marion nestle for her thoughts. i’ll share her thoughts here if she responds to me.



Bethany December 14, 2010 at 10:31 am

I find myself really surprised at this, although I do recognize my microcosm is just that. Our kids are good eaters and I’d like to think the fact that (1) we provide them with a variety of healthy choices, (2) we stick to our guns on healthy snacks and (3) we limit sweets has contributed more than a little bit to their eating habits. I’ve seen the same hold true in the opposite direction – my friends with picky eaters have (knowingly or otherwise) modeled that food behavior for their kids and sure enough, they have picky eaters. So now I wonder – does the fact that my husband and I work hard to get in regular exercise (both to model the importance of it and to include our boys when/where we can) have little to no bearing on their eventual choice to remain active/inactive when they are grown? I can agree that there are a host of influences, I just would have expected a greater net effect from/by the parents. Bummer!


fran December 14, 2010 at 6:57 pm

i’m stuck on the words “young people” when they talk about the weak ties. and in that, i’d have no difficulty believing it to be true. it’s what those young people do when they turn into young and old(er) adults that i’m interested in. we’ll have to see what comes from their continued research.



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