Children Look To Parents for Healthy Habits

Connie K. Ho for

“Actions speak louder than words.” This old adage has been passed on from generation to generation and highlights the importance of taking action rather than talking about it. This idea of leading by example was recently seen in a study done by Michigan State University (MSU). The study found that low-income mothers can encourage their children to have healthier diets by eating nutritious foods themselves. The researchers recommended that parents should act as role models and encourage their children to practice healthy habits rather than using force, threatening punishment, or dangling rewards.

The researchers looked at 330 pairings of children between the ages of three and five and their mothers who participated in Head Start, a federal program for low-income families. The researchers measured the mother´s feeding practices, the children´s food intake, as well as the height and weight of the mother and child.

“This study expands the concept of ℠child feeding control´ by dividing practices into 2 divergent constructs: ℠directive control´ and ℠nondirective control.´ Practices whereby parents put external, observable pressure on the child to eat a healthy diet were considered to be ℠directive control.´ Practices whereby parents supported a healthy diet by motivational interactions aimed at child internalization and by an organized home food environment were considered to be ℠nondirective control,´” explained the authors in the report.

The findings, published in a recent edition of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, highlighted the eating-habits of low-income families. According to Sharon Hoerr, MSU professor of food science and human nutrition, mothers who persuaded their children through example rather than ordering them around were more successful in integrating vegetables into their child´s diet. Hoerr worked with Megumi Murashima, a doctoral student, and Stan Kaplowitz, a sociologist, on the project.

“Mothers should stop forcing or restricting their kids´ eating,” explained Hoerr in a prepared statement. “They´d be better off providing a healthy food environment, adopting balanced eating habits themselves and covertly controlling their children´s diet quality by not bringing less healthy foods into the house.”

Hoerr believes that overly restricting children during mealtimes could be detrimental as well. Other tips she gave to parents included keeping regular meal and snack times, serving smaller portions of healthy foods, and also allowing the child to decide how much they wanted to eat.

“With picky eaters, it´s best to coax and encourage them to eat rather than yell at them,” remarked Hoerr on tips on getting children to eat more nutritious foods. “Other ways to get them interested in having a balanced diet is to take them to the grocery store or garden, and help them select new foods to taste as well as allow them to help cook at home.”

With the research, Hoerr hopes to continue making headway; she eventually hopes to create interactive educational materials for parents and help them encourage children to eat healthier.

“Further investigations in longitudinal studies to explain the paths between these relations can inform parental feeding guidelines to help improve children’s diet quality and reduce child obesity,” wrote the authors in the report.

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