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Helene Pavlov, M.D.

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Obese Children: Is It Nature, Nurture or Both?

Posted: 08/25/2011 4:41 pm

My personal belief regarding how parents' eating habits affect their children and their ability to make healthful eating decisions was addressed a previous blog post regarding a family I saw lounging on the beach.

Each of the family members -- parents and toddlers -- had his or her own, family-sized bag of chips, and they all sat there, with quart-sized bottles of sodas in tow, chomping away. That is why I was a little surprised by a recent study of parents' eating habits and the effect on their children.

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health reviewed and assessed the degree of association and similarity between the dietary habits of children and their parents, based on worldwide studies published since 1980. The study found a weak association between the food a parent eats and how that influences a child. The study also discussed the other pieces of the puzzle that play a role in why children choose to eat the foods they do. These influences, they found, included the local food scene and peer influence, government guidelines and policies that regulate school meals, and the broader food environment that is influenced by food production, distribution, advertising and marketing.

While I agree that there are a number of factors that affect how and why children make the decisions they do with regard to what they eat, I cannot believe that parental influence and their behavior -- good and bad -- do not affect their children's behavior.

As primary caregivers, parents not only have the duty of steering their children in the right direction toward epicurean decision making, but they also are tasked with educating their children in how to recognize and filter the constant outside influences (e.g., advertising, peer pressure, school meals, etc.) that will be challenging them for the rest of their lives. It is more than just "eat healthy foods." Children need to know portion control and the definition of what is healthful. Children need to be taught to filter statements and questions like, "Are all white foods bad?" "Are all packaged foods bad?" "Can you trust labels?" "What should you be looking for in the ingredients?" "What ingredients should you avoid?"

Children learn from their parents. They learn to think about what they eat, or not, by both direct instruction and observation. The statement "do as I say, not as I do" does not fly. You cannot yell at a child not to yell; all they will hear is the yelling. It is important for parents to be aware that they are influencing their children by their behavior. It is crucial to deliver a message of health and well-being when it comes to choosing the right foods, and also the appropriate quantities to consume. It is appropriate to eat more if you do more. Avid athletes need to eat more appropriate foods to have the muscle strength and endurance to accomplish their athletic pursuits.

Let's not forget that today's parents were also influenced by their parents and society as a whole. In my day, it was common for parents to tell a child that they must finish the food on their plate in order to get dessert. Today, there is more of an understanding that less is more. Given all the news about the rate of obesity and its profound effect on public health, parents who have gotten themselves into poor eating habits should consider the consequences for future generations and begin to recognize that they are the gatekeepers when it comes to good health and nutrition.

So my assessment: you are what you eat, and diet and exercise are influenced by both nature and nurture. Now, when you go shopping, buy a bag of apples instead of a bag of potato chips and offer one to your child.

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