NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Parents who want their preschoolers to eat their fruits and vegetables should probably practice what they preach, a new study suggests.
In a study of more than 1,300 families, researchers found that when parents boosted their own consumption of fruits and vegetables, so did their young children.
The findings, reported in the journal Preventive Medicine, point to the importance of parents “modeling” a healthy diet for their preschoolers. They also suggest that educating parents on nutrition early on could help address the problem of childhood obesity, the researchers say.
About half of parents in the study were randomly assigned to receive home visits where they learned about nutrition and tactics for getting their children to eat fruits and vegetables. On average, these parents increased their fruit and vegetable intake, and in turn so did their children.
“We know that parents have a tremendous influence over how many fruits and vegetables their children eat,” lead researcher Dr. Debra Haire-Joshu, of Saint Louis University School of Public Health in St. Louis, commented in a written statement.
“When parents eat more fruits and vegetables, so do their children,” she added. “When parents eat and give their children high fat snacks or soft drinks, children learn these eating patterns instead.”
The study included 1,306 parents of young children who were enrolled in Parents As Teachers, a program available in all U.S. states that teaches parenting skills through home visits and other activities.
Of these parents, 605 were randomly assigned to the High 5 for Kids program in addition to their standard education. Parents in the High 5 group received four home visits in which they learned about nutrition and methods of getting young children to eat fruits and vegetables — including eating the foods in front of their children and allowing them to choose which fruits and vegetables they wanted to eat.
In the end, parents in the High 5 group boosted their own fruit and vegetable intake, and children’s increases correlated with their parents’.
The one exception was children who were already overweight, who generally did not grow fonder of fruits and vegetables.
“Overweight children,” Haire-Joshu said, “have already been exposed to salty, sweet foods and learned to like them. To keep a child from becoming overweight, parents need to expose them early to a variety of health foods and offer the foods many times.”
SOURCE: Preventive Medicine, July 2008.