May 9, 2023

Can You Control What Your Child Eats?

At Wellspring, we recognize that children have more autonomy than ever in their diet. Over 40% of calories are consumed outside the home, and kids typically not only have the opportunity to make unhealthful food and beverage decision (spending money + significantly more outlets providing junk and fast food), but also the motive (compelling advertising of fast and junk food).

Many parents ask us: Can I do more to control what my child eats? Certainly, you can control the food you bring into the home and you can modify your eating habits in accord with healthy guidelines. This re-orientation in the home food environment, including effective modeling of a weight-controlling diet, is a major focus of the three-day family workshops we provide at all of our Academies and Camps.

Researchers from John Hopkins University examined the resemblance between children’s and parents’ eating habits and drew some conclusions that might seem discouraging to those wishing to change their families’ eating habits. On a scale of 0 to 100, where 100 would be a perfect correlation between parent diets and child diets, and 0 would be no correlation, the results were as follows:

Overall correlation – 27%
Calories – 21%
Fat – 16%

According to the Johns Hopkins researchers, “Our findings indicate that factors other than family and parental eating behaviors play an important role in affecting American children’s dietary intakes… and suggest that interventions targeting parents could have only a moderate effect on improving their children’s diet.”

We definitely disagree with the latter part of these conclusions. This study actually tells us very little about the viability of interventions that target making changes in eating patterns at home. We wanted to make sure that if you hear about this study that you’ll know why we disagree.

These findings simply reflect that children tend to eat differently than their parents. Their tastes are different, they don’t consume alcohol (at least the young ones don’t), they eat in school cafeterias, and other factors account for much of these variations. This study simply examined the relationship between eating as measured in a limited way over a small period of time. Even if it measured eating more thoroughly, this research did NOT test whether parents and children, like those who participate in all of Wellspring’s programs, who actually tried to change their eating patterns together could do so. Probably more than 98% of the families in this research were not deliberately trying to change their diets at the time of the survey.

Our own research and studies from others show that families absolutely positively can change their eating habits together. Those parents that do especially well at this change often lose weight themselves (if they were overweight) and certainly help their young weight controllers succeed.

A new study from Vanderbilt University shows just how important making healthful changes in eating patterns can be. Vanderbilt researchers tracked the eating habits of over 5,500 children aged 10 and 11, compared diet to performance in reading and math tests, and also controlled for parents’ income, as well as the children’s race and weight.

The study showed that children who ate at fast food restaurants more than 3x per week had test scores 7% below the average (again, after controlling for income, race and weight). Those who ate fast food at least 1x per day scored 16% below average, while the small percentage who at fast food 3x per day or more had scores that were 19% below the average.

The academic consequences of consuming a diet high in fast food shows that eating can impact more than just health. Another study showed that not only fast food habits require changing, but healthful diets more generally could use additional attention.

In a large scale study comparing eating habits between the early 1990s and the early 2000s, the study found that the number of people eating five or more fruits and vegetables a day decreased from 42% to 26%. Looking at the bigger picture, the number of people adhering to what the researchers called “healthy habits” (exercising 12 times a month or more, not smoking, eating five or more fruits and vegetables daily, moderate alcohol use and maintaining healthy weight) was cut in half – from15% to 8%.

All of this has prompted Professor Boyd Swinburn, Chair of Population Health and director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention at Deakin University in the UK, to urge a new direction in obesity research. The vast majority of research in the field continues to focus on the causes of the epidemic. The time has come to shift from “problem-oriented research” to “solution-oriented research.”

According to Professor Swinburn: “For an individual person, we know the causes of weight gain over time include the obesogenic environment, genetic predisposition, and increasing age – none of which can be influenced by the health professional trying to help the person lose weight. At a population level, the commercial drivers which promote our overconsumption of food are unlikely to be reversed by the private sector because there is no commercial gain for the food industry to promote eating fewer calories.”

“The bottom line is that we need to re-orient our research towards testing potential solutions rather than just better identifying the problem.”