Like Mother, Like Daughter
How Parents Influence Their Childrens’ Eating Habits…
Like it or Not!
During occasional moments of frustration, mothers the world over sometimes wonder if they have any influence over their children on any issue. But we all know from our personal experiences how important our moms (and dads) are. They profoundly influence what we think, what we do, what we enjoy, what we dislike, whom we date, and how we live our lives.
Moms particularly influence what and how much we eat and, more broadly, how we regard food. There’s a large and growing body of scientific research that demonstrates that Moms are the single most important influence over their children’s eating habits.
Even children agree, though they may not like to admit it, that moms have a powerful effect on their behavior, including their eating habits. In fact, parents, with mom being number one, outranked sports celebrities as the person children aged 8 – 17 “would like to be most,” according to the Family Nutrition and Physical Activity survey conducted by the American Dietetic Association Foundation.
Like mother, like daughter is a phrase with deeper meaning than we often appreciate. Studies show daughters copy their mother’s eating habits – whether they like it or not.
Take me, for example. I grew up with a lovely mother who happened to have a weight problem. She went on diet after diet. She seemed unhappy with her body, her weight, and therefore, herself. Her shame and frustration made a big impression on me and scared me about the miseries of being overweight and dieting. I was determined not to repeat her experience.
But, being a child, I was relatively powerless over my destiny. Studies show daughters of dieting or restricting mothers are more likely to diet or develop eating problems – and I certainly did both. While I didn’t want to repeat my mother’s experience, I inevitably did.
My experience is typical for women across the country. Study after study shows the importance of parental modeling, especially with mothers and daughters, on a child’s eating habits.
Very early in life, children begin learning about eating and foods. Mom provides most of the information absorbed by the child concerning what to eat, when to eat and when to stop. Problems occur when Mom gives faulty signals, often inadvertently, possibly because she has eating and weight problems of her own, which creates eating and weight problems in her children, particularly daughters.
Parents, typically it’s the mothers, provide the structure, choose the food and reinforce certain eating practices either by reinforcement or through modeling. The mother’s dieting and weight control experience influences the children in ways they may not even realize. Moms who eat in response to the external cues of, for instance, the presence of tasty foods, as opposed to hunger, have children who do the same and are often overweight. This could happen simply through the child observing the parent and absorbing those lessons.
Weight problems are on the rise and so are behaviors such as dieting, restricting, bingeing and eating disorders. Not only is rigid dieting harmful to the mother, it can be dangerous for children and could effect their eating habits and weight in a negative way. These behaviors start as early as preschool. Researchers recently discovered that half of 5-year-old girls know all about dieting. And when researchers look further, they find it’s easy to predict which girls are diet-savvy. They’re the ones with mothers who are dieting.
It’s been established that a girl’s eating is significantly related to the mother’s eating pattern and body weight. Heavier girls, girls who have problems overeating, are more likely to have mothers who are overweight, binge, and feel out of control of their eating. In studies, obese mothers and girls ate larger quantities of food in less time than did their thinner counterparts.
Several things can influence your child’s eating and weight. Mom has significant influence on a child’s food preferences and eating patterns. For instance, when Mom tries to control intake by restricting a food which is available in the home, that food becomes more desirable to the daughter and can cause her to binge – followed by feelings of remorse and negative self-image. When mom tries to have too much control over a child’s eating, this prevents the child from understanding naturally when to eat and when to stop.
Moms who have weight problems tend to try to control or restrict inappropriately, thus setting up eating and weight problems in their children. It’s ironic, because the very problem mom is trying to prevent, she actually fosters because of her overcontrol, which limits the child’s natural abilities for self-control or self-regulation.
Also, if a young girl regularly observes restricting or overeating behaviors in Mom, she adopts the same eating patterns simply through natural observation and modeling, even if mom tries to shield her by encouraging healthy eating. It’s been documented that overweight children often have moms who binge or diet. Moms can unwittingly create eating problems in their children this way.
How you reinforce your children can undermine their ability to self-regulate, for instance, encouraging them to ‘clean the plate,” to eat at certain times, to eat in response to feelings and emotions, or rewarding them with sweets and tasty food. These patterns start the child on a course of life long eating habits which will serve her well – or not.
Studies show heavier moms were more likely to exhibit eating unrelated to hunger – in response to the presence of tasty foods or emotional factors. Daughters of these moms tend to exhibit the same eating and also tend to be more overweight.
Studies show that children will develop food preferences based on what is provided in the home by their moms. In studies conducted at Pennsylvania State University, kids’ fat preferences and fat intakes were linked to parental fatness, so the heavier parents had kids who were preferring and eating diets that were higher in fat, said Leann Birch, professor and head of the department of human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University. Parents modeling healthful dietary behaviors is associated with lower fat eating patterns and lower dietary fat intake in their children.
“Kids really will learn to prefer calorie dense foods, and this could in fact be one of the factors that contribute to diets that are too high in calories and too high in fat,” said Birch.
Studies also demonstrate the strong influence of modeling. If parents don’t eat vegetables, children don’t. If parent don’t drink milk and drink sodas instead, children replace milk with sodas. Even if parents try to encourage their children to eat healthier than they do, the studies clearly find that children do not respond by eating healthfully, unless their parents actually do it themselves.
The studies are very clear that it’s what mothers do, not what they say, which registers with their children most strongly. “Do as I say, not as I do,” is not effective at shaping healthy eating habits in children. What moms eat, what moms make available in the home, shapes food preferences and eating habits from the womb until adulthood.
Women who eat a wider variety of foods during pregnancy or breast feeding give birth to children who are more accepting of new foods. One study found that women who drank large amounts of carrot juice while pregnant gave birth to babies who responded more positively to carrots!
Fruit and vegetable eating is a behavior often measured and studied because science has found people who eat more fruits and vegetables are significantly healthier. Nutrition scientists want to learn what behavior will help children love fruits and vegetables naturally.
What they have discovered is remarkably simple.
“Children choose to eat the foods they are served most often and they tend to prefer to eat the foods which are available in the home,” says Theresa Nicklas, Professor of Pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston.
Moms who regularly eat vegetables and offer vegetables to their daughters have daughters who prefer vegetables. If, on the other hand, Mom encourages eating vegetables but doesn’t personally model the behavior, those daughters will not prefer vegetables. It can really backfire if you induce your child to eat fruits and vegetables because they are good for them. The only factor which will convince kids – or adults for that matter – to eat anything, is taste. You will be most effective if you simply eat and enjoy fruits and vegetables, convincing your child that they are absolutely yummy, and make them easily available to your children.
These studies have been repeated with various eating behaviors. Since childhood milk drinking is predictive of calcium intake and bone mineralization in girls and bone fractures in older women, it has been studied extensively. Scientists have found if Mom drinks milk, daughters drink and prefer milk. But if Mom drinks soda instead, the daughter prefers soda, and studies show that means she gets less calcium and has less dense bones. Interestingly, if Mom encourages the daughter to drink milk and drinks soda instead, it doesn’t fly. The daughter will still prefer and drink sodas.
Looking back on my childhood, this is another area in which my mother influenced me, whether I liked it or not. I was one of the “unlucky” children in my neighborhood that wasn’t allowed to drink sodas. The only beverages available in our home were milk and juice. Milk was consumed at every meal – by everyone – mom, dad and all the kids. My friends teased me and snuck me sodas when I visited them. But – my guess is - because sodas weren’t available in my home, I never developed a soda-drinking habit. To this day, I drink milk at meals and only infrequently drink diet sodas, if any. Needless to say, I’m very thankful for this influence even though at the time, it made me feel very uncool and sorry for myself!
With the strong practical and emotional support from Mom and the whole family, it is very possible for children to live in a balanced, nutritionally sound and healthy way. But without it, it’s close to impossible to do so. The family environment Mom creates is a very powerful force that fosters early habits, shapes daily routines, and molds lifelong expectations. The family unit is where good things can happen and where you can build a strong foundation for good health and good food that will allow your family to overcome the negative influences of the outside world.
Here are some ideas to harness your considerable power to help your children love eating healthfully:
1. Children eat what is available to them and learn to prefer vegetables and healthy, wholesome foods if they are frequently and positively offered and enjoyed by the whole family. Studies show children sample new foods more often when they observe their parents eating it, especially if coupled with parental attention and encouragement.
2.Regardless of your weight, if you model healthy eating behavior, this will have a positive effect on your child’s eating and weight.
3.Never put your child on a diet, never tell her she is overweight, never restrict her access to any foods in your house. Don’t single her out or treat her differently than anyone else in your family. These reactions backfire and could make what may be a temporary phase of chubbiness in your child’s life to a serious weight problem.
4.Instead of restricting access to unhealthy or high calorie foods, get rid of them! Children learn to love foods which are available, and if there are only healthy foods available, no restriction will be necessary.
Roberto Donna’s Stuffed Shells with Ricotta and Eggplant
excerpted from Diet Simple
Washington, DC chef and restaurateur, Roberto Donna of Galileo is committed to introducing others to the real flavors of Italy. Born in Torino, the Piedmont Region of Italy, Donna is the recipient of the 1996 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic and is Chairman of the Gruppo Ristoratori Italiani, an organization dedicated to presenting authentic Italian food culture in the United States. As an active member of Share Our Strength and The James Beard Foundation, he participates in numerous charityevents nationwide.
This simple main course comes together quickly and makes for a delicious Italian meal minus loads of calories.
8 oz. peeled and cubed eggplant, sprinkled with 1 Tbs. olive oil
8 oz. low-fat ricotta cheese
2 Tbs. capers, drained (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
12 fresh basil leaves
12 jumbo shells, cooked, drained and cooled
2 Tbs. olive oil
4 Tbs. grated Parmesan, optional
Italian parsley leaves for garnish
Olive Oil Spray (optional)
Tomato Sauce (as an option, you can use a favorite commercial sauce):
1 1/2 cups canned plum tomatoes
1/2 cup tomato sauce from can
1 garlic clove, minced
4 tbsp fat-free sour cream
1. Preheat oven to 450F.
2. Place eggplant cubes on nonstick baking sheet and roast about 15 minutes until crisped and golden. Remove from oven. Mix ricotta with capers and eggplant cubes in mixing bowl. Season with salt and pepper and 4 minced basil leaves. Set aside.
3. Reduce oven temperature to 400F.
4. Cover baking dish with foil and spray with nonstick vegetable spray. Fill each shell with about 1 tablespoon ricotta cheese mixture, filling evenly among shells until used up. Brush tops of shells with 1 tablespoon olive oil (or spray with olive oil spray). Bake 10 minutes, or until crisped and golden brown at the edges.
6. Meanwhile, to make tomato sauce, purée tomatoes, remaining basil, rest of olive oil and garlic in food processor. Season with salt and pepper and stir in sour cream. Heat mixture over low heat until warmed through. Remove and set aside.
7. To serve, spoon one quarter of the of sauce on dish and place 1 stuffed shell on top. Drizzle a little extra sauce over each top and garnish with parsley leaf. Repeat with remaining shells and sauce. Refrigerate if not using immediately.
8. To reheat, place 3 shells on top of sauce on microwavable plate or shallow bowl, cover with a glass bowl or microwavable plastic and microwave 2 minutes.
Calories from Fat 160
Total Fat 17g 27%
Saturated Fat 6g 29%
Cholesterol 35mg 11%
Sodium 580mg 24%
Total Carbohydrate 38g 13%
Dietary Fiber 4g 16%
Vitamin A 25%
Vitamin C 25%
Copyright by Katherine Tallmadge.
For more fabulous tips and simple, effective ways to lose weight,
buy her book, Diet Simple!