How Relationships Can Improve Eating Behaviors in Children and Adolescents

By: Rachel Paul, Dietetic Intern Date: 4/30/13

A mother, worried about her overweight child's health, forbids the child to eat dessert.

At a middle-school sleepover, one best friend tells the other that a certain food group "makes you fat." Both girls decide to abstain from these foods.

A college student reads in a magazine that her celebrity idol is following an extreme diet. The student, worried about the recent weight she's gained, decides to try the diet as well. 

I'm sure nearly everyone has experienced or personally witnessed an interaction similar to those above, but did you know that outcomes from these interactions are potentially dangerous and can cause unintended consequences? Nutritional confusion, poor body image, chronic dieting, and even eating disorders are some possible negative consequences. Many psychological factors can impact eating decisions, such as culture, genetics, and the social relationships evident above. 

Relationships with family members, peers, and role models influence an individual's food decisions and beliefs at different levels. Many believe we, as humans, follow an innate sense of nutritional balance, which involves listening to our bodies to eat when we are hungry and stop when we are full. While this system may seem obvious, many of us may lose our innate regulation as time wears on, based on our environment, culture, and other factors. One influence that may deter and encourage this intuition is social relationships.  

A review of current research indicates that influences from social relationships may impact children and adolescents differently.1-5

Children

Parental, primarily mothers', influences; such as restriction of certain foods, pressure on their children to eat, extent to which mothers believe they can exercise cognitive control over eating, and maternal loss of control of eating; all play noteworthy roles in children's BMI levels, adiposity or excess body fat, and food choices.1-3

Adolescents

The more often a teen ate with his/her family per week, as well as the more his/her parents and friends encouraged and supported healthy eating, the teen was more likely to eat nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables.4 Further, if a teen lived with his/her family as opposed to being homeless, the adolescent was less likely to engage in abnormal weight-control behaviors such as fasting and using diet pills.5 Through this research, it seems that more factors - such as friends' opinions play into eating decisions. However, family values and influences are a common impact throughout childhood and adulthood.

While the studies completed offer important insights, more research is needed to understand these complex relationships between parents, children, and adolescents as well as to develop programs that can improve them.

Until further research is done, be a good role model! Encourage healthy eating practices and behaviors with your friends and family! Need some ideas? Here are a few:

-          Prioritize family mealtime*: If this seems too daunting with everyone's chaotic schedule, set aside time during the weekend. Gradually add in other family meals - and before you know it, family mealtime will be second nature!

-          Get children involved in nutrition*: In the kitchen, the grocery store, or a community garden! Help kids categorize food into food groups or let them plan part of the menu at home. Assign age-appropriate jobs, like choosing the fruit for breakfast, mixing dry or wet ingredients together for baking, or setting or clearing table.

-          Picky eaters making mealtime a challenge?* Offer a variety of choices, offer foods in a variety of textures and colors, and be a good role model.

-          Focus on the health, not weight:* If you have an overweight child, focus on eating better and moving more with your whole family. Compliment your children on their lifestyle behaviors.

*Adapted from eatright.org  

For more information on the role social relationships can play in the eating behaviors of children and adolescents, check out our April Food Insight Newsletter. Don't receive our newsletter? No problem! You can register for it here: http://www.foodinsight.org/Newsletter-Signup.aspx.    

Nutrition for the Family: Resources for Healthy Living:

1.     www.choosemyplate.gov

2.     www.supertracker.usda.gov

3.     www.eatright.org/Public/

4.     www.letsmove.gov/

5.     www.kidnetic.com/

 Resources:

1.     Sparks, MA.; Radnitz, CL. "Child Disinhibition, Parent Restriction, and Child Body Mass Index in Low-income Preschool Families." Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, v. 45 issue 1, 2013, p. 82-5.

2.     Contento, IR.; Zybert, P.; Williams, SS. "Relationship of cognitive restraint of eating and disinhibition to the quality of food choices of Latina women and their young children." Preventive Medicine, v. 40 issue 3, 2005, p. 326-36.

3.     Cardel, M., et al. "Parental feeding practices and socioeconomic status are associated with child adiposity in a multi-ethnic sample of children." Appetite, v. 58 issue 1, 2012, p. 347-53.

4.     Cutler, GJ.; Flood, A.; Hannan, P.; Neumark-Sztainer, D. "Multiple sociodemographic and socioenvironmental characteristics are correlated with major patterns of dietary intake in adolescents." Journal of the American Dietetic Association, v. 111 issue 2, 2011, p. 230-40.

5.     Fournier, ME., et al. "A comparison of weight-related behaviors among high school students who are homeless and non-homeless." Journal of School Health, v. 79 issue 10, 2009, p. 466-73.