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Do Kids Follow Parents' Dietary Habits? Maybe Not So Much.

When I wrote last year about the fact that my modeling healthful eating and exercise behaviors didn't seem to be making much of an impression on my kids, then ages 14 and 11, I didn't find much in the parenting literature to back me up.

But a new study in the journal Social Science & Medicine seems to support my experience. Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health looked at a national survey of families' eating habits, comparing what parents (about 2,300 of them, ages 20 to 65) and their kids (about 2,700, ages 2-18) reported having eaten over two separate 24-hour periods. Their conclusion: Parents' and kids' eating patterns had little in common.

The overall lack of correlation held up when researchers controlled for such influences as parents' income and education status. Similarities between child and parent diets in general was stronger among older children, except among families whose overall diet was the very most healthful. In those diet-wise families, the younger kids' food intake most closely matched parents'. Girls' diets were more like their parents' than were boys', a connection that was particularly strong when it came to mothers' consuming calcium and dairy products. On the flip side, soft-drink consumption was more common among non-Hispanic whites and black kids whose parents also drank the stuff.

There's lots of food for thought here. First, these were just two days' reported diets. The data was collected way back in the mid-1990s. And the study only looked at simultaneous eating habits; it didn't predict whether behaviors parents model for young children might influence those children's diets once they became adults.

Still, the study expands the discussion beyond the old you-model-it, they'll-do-it saw. And it offers some solace to those of us who've felt we must be doing something wrong because our kids don't eat the way we do. The authors posit -- without providing supporting evidence -- that other influences, from peers to TV, might exert more influence over kids' eating habits than parents do.

Tell me how this works in your family. Do your kids follow your lead in their dietary habits? Or are you just hoping that the behaviors you're modeling today will be adopted by your kids later?

Yesterday's Poll Results: And the winner is.... romaine and other leaf lettuce, which 56 percent of the 1,033 people who voted chose as their favorite leafy green. Next up: spinach, with 18 percent of the vote; butterhead, Boston and other open-head varieties with 10 percent. Iceberg lettuce, with 6 percent of the vote, only beat mache greens (4 percent) and "other" (3 percent). Thanks for your input!

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  June 3, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Family Health , Nutrition and Fitness  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Learning to Love Leaf Lettuce
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Did the authors of the study control for whether parents raised kids eating the same food as adults, as opposed to "modeling" good eating habits, but feeding kids nuggets /pizza instead of salmon, Indian, etc. Also, some of it may be that taste buds change and the kids hadn't yet developed a taste for some foods (for me, it was brocolli and cheese that I couldn't eat until I was in college).

Posted by: MomSarah | June 3, 2009 8:22 AM | Report abuse

Ya know, there's nothing like having kids to change your position on the whole nature vs. nurture thing. When I had my daughter, I decided that I did not want to inflict my own food/health/weight "issues" on her. So I cooked healthy foods; served lots of fruits and vegetables; praised her for trying new things, even when she didn't like them; never pressured her to eat (or not eat); limited crap while not prohibiting it, etc. And I watched as she developed into the healthiest eater I know -- ok, she's not huge on veggies, but she will eat as much fruit as you let her, loves grains without huge amounts of butter or cheese, loves milk, and eats little bits of lean protein. Her favorite food is sushi. I practically threw my arm out patting myself on the back.

Then I had my boy. Same foods, same approach -- opposite results. The boy will not eat a fruit or vegetable to save his life. If it's not (a) milk, (b) cured pork product, or (c) beige, he doesn't want it. Won't even eat fruit-flavored gummy bears! Only kid I know who wouldn't drink apple juice until he was well over 3.

I have to say, though, he puts my own childhood into perspective. I remember saying some things were bitter, or sodas hurt my throat, or the smell of fish made my stomach hurt, and everyone thought I was exaggerating and making stuff up, because they couldn't taste it or feel it. But I watch him, and it's clear he just really doesn't like a lot of things.

So I'm definitely in the "model and hope they follow later" category. Right now, though, it's a losing battle -- even my "good eater" daughter has discovered the snacks at the school cafeteria!

Posted by: laura33 | June 3, 2009 8:25 AM | Report abuse

They only followed the children until age 18 over 2 24 hour periods.

That hardly tells you what their lifetime pattern of consumption will be. It's when kids grow up and start cooking for themselves and feeding their own children that the family habit appears.

Parents should keep with their good and improving habits. The impact of this can not be seen tomorrow or next year.

Posted by: RedBird27 | June 3, 2009 10:15 AM | Report abuse

Well, my kids are little--7 and 10. They are not inclined to make their own food, so they eat what I fix, which is usually healthy food with plenty of fruits and vegetables. I did see a change in both of them when they entered public school and saw the eating habits of others--they complained more about eating vegetables, and I think they didn't eat much in the way of vegetables at school. The difference from daycare/home was that at school they assembled their own lunch from the available choices, and did not always select vegetables--and heard their friends disparage vegetables at the lunch table. When given a selection (as in a pot luck dinner) they would definitely not select a vegetable unless I was there putting it on their plates.

But I am hopeful that just as I learned to eat more foods as I grew older, so will they.

Posted by: janedoe5 | June 3, 2009 11:53 AM | Report abuse

I think the more relevant assessment of how parents' food choices affect their children's choices would be examine the similarities between adult children and their parents. Part of teen development, the years when kids are most able to make their own food choices, is to pull away from parental control and try different things, so we would expect the differences to show at this time. But when those children are 30, see how their parents' diet affected their eating habits.

Posted by: esleigh | June 5, 2009 10:54 AM | Report abuse

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