Moms' mealtime tactics tied to kids' eating habits

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - School-age children whose mothers tightly control their diets may be prone to overeating, while those with moms who pressure them to eat tend to be fussy about food, a new study finds.

The findings, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, do not necessarily mean that parents’ mealtime strategies cause their children to overeat or become picky eaters.

In fact, the researchers say, it’s likely that parents who pressure or restrict are often reacting to their children’s eating habits.

A number of studies have found that when parents strictly control their children’s diets -- either denying all unhealthy fare or pressuring them to expand their menu choices -- kids may be more likely to have less-than-ideal eating habits. But it has not been clear whether parents’ tactics are a cause of or response to their children’s dining habits.

Nor is it certain how all of this factors into children’s weight. Some studies, for example, have linked strict diet control to an increased risk of children being overweight, while others have not.

For the new study, Dr. Jane Wardle and colleagues at the University College London surveyed 213 mothers of 7- to 9-year-old children from five London schools. The mothers completed a questionnaire that asked about their children’s “responsiveness” to food -- whether the child would typically overeat if given the chance -- as well as signs of food “avoidance,” like eating slowly or routinely failing to finish meals.

Mothers also reported on their own mealtime strategies -- including whether they tried to get their children to eat even when they said they weren’t hungry, or whether they believed their children would overindulge if they were given no eating restrictions.

Overall, Wardle’s team found a correlation between mothers’ pressure to eat healthy and children’s degree of fussiness over food. Similarly, mothers’ restriction of food correlated with children’s responsiveness to food; the more restriction, the more likely mothers were to say their children would overindulge if allowed.

The links were seen regardless of children’s weight.

According to Wardle and her colleagues, a number of studies have suggested that parents are often responding to their kids when they choose to either restrict their eating or pressure them to eat more.

Some studies have found, for instance, that children whose parents put on the pressure are often thin. And that, Wardle’s team writes, fits the notion that these parents are often worried that their child is underweight.

On the flip side, studies of siblings have found that moms tend to put more diet restrictions on their heavier child -- again suggesting that many mothers are reacting to their children’s weight or eating habits.

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

That said, the researchers point out, the relationship may go in the other direction as well -- making it important to recognize that children may both influence and be influenced by their parents’ diet management.

In general, experts recommend that parents try to get their kids interested in healthy foods from an early age -- by having them, for example, help with shopping and preparing meals. With young children who are fussy eaters, the American Dietetic Association suggests regularly offering them colorful foods, and making the eating environment pleasant but without any mealtime distractions like TV.

A number of studies have also suggested the importance of parents acting as dietary role models: If parents regularly eat their fruits and vegetables, kids may be more willing to do it too.

SOURCE: Journal of the American Dietetic Association, November 2010.