Parents affect children’s food habits

Parents beware. Telling your child to clean their plate may help produce a fussy eater, while tight control of what they eat could make children prone to overeating, according to a study.

Though a number of studies have found that when parents strictly control what their children eat -- either denying all unhealthy food or pressuring them to expand their meal choices -- their children may be more likely to have less than ideal eating habits, it has not been clear whether these parental tactics were a cause of or a response to their childrens' eating habits.

In a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Jane Wardle and colleagues at University College London surveyed 213 mothers.

"Child enjoyment of food was linked to lower maternal pressure to eat," Wardle wrote.

But she also noted that the results don't necessarily mean that parents' mealtime strategies cause their children to overeat or become picky eaters. Indeed, the parental moves may come in response to habits the children already have.

In the study, mothers were asked about how their children responded to food: whether they would typically overeat if given a chance, along with whether they'd eat slowly or routinely fail to finish meals.

Mothers also reported on their own mealtime strategies, including whether they tried to get their children to eat when they weren't hungry or whether they believed their children would overindulge without eating restrictions.

Overall, Wardle and her colleagues found a correlation between the mothers' pressure to eat healthy food and children's degree of fussiness over food. In addition, the more mothers restricted their children's food, the more likely mothers were to say their children would overindulge if allowed.

The links were seen regardless of the children's weight.

But the team also said the parental strategies could be responding to how the children ate, with thin children often being pressured to eat and more diet restrictions being put on a heavier child.

"With growing evidence of a genetic basis to eating behavior and food intake in children, the present results are consistent with the idea that mothers' feeding practices are, to some extent, responsive to their children's predispositions towards food," Wardle and her colleagues wrote.

But they added that it's important to recognize that children may both influence, and be influenced by, their parents' diet management.

How are you handling your children's food habits? 
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