Dietary Habits of Parents and Non-parents: Good Role Models?


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Study shows that parenthood does not result in healthier eating habits. Image courtesy of the USDA

Not many parents would say that they don’t care what their children eat. While the media and peers have strong effects, both positive and negative, on children, parents are generally expected to be good role models. So, what happens to eating habits when people become parents? Do parents put away the chips and soda and become vegans? Or do the stress and time constraints of parenthood make good eaters into vending machine aficionados?

Dietary Differences in Saturated Fat Intake

Dr. Helena H. Laroche, and her colleagues, attempted to answer that question in a recent study. Laroche analyzed data from the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults cohort study (CARDIA) which collected dietary information from adults in four cities, Birmingham, AL; Chicago, IL; Minneapolis, MN; and Oakland, CA,  for seven years, beginning in 1985. Data was collected from both black and whites in the population.

Laroche found that parents and non-parents of both races did not differ much in their eating habits, and that parents of both sexes were equally affected by the presence of children. Both parents and non-parents consumed similar quantities of sugar sweetened beverages, and ate fast food at the same rate.  Parents consumed an average of  79 more calories a day, but this was not statistically significant, and could be due to chance.

Over time, both parents and non-parents began to eat less saturated fats and begin to consume more fruits and vegetables. It was not clear if this was due to an overall improvement in nutrition throughout the communities studied, or if it was the effect of the participants maturing. Parents, however, did not decrease their intake saturated fat as much as their childless peers.

The Effect of Children’s Dietary Preferences on Parents

The higher consumption of saturated fat by parents may be explained by the study’s finding that “almost 50% of parents believe that meal, grocery, and restaurant choices are influenced by their children.” As any parent attempting to shop with a child knows, it is difficult to ignore the pleas of persistent children, convinced that a particular breakfast cereal or snack item belongs in the grocery cart. As Laroche discovered, the marketing of junk food to children may affect not only their health, but also the health of their parents.

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