How Does Parental Influence Affect Children’s Eating Behavior?

Dr. Christopher McGowan
October 24, 2023

From the first spoonful of baby food to the battle over finishing vegetables during family meal times, parents play a profound role in shaping the eating behaviors of their children. This relationship between parents and children isn’t just about providing sustenance, however; it's also ideally about training and preparing children for a lifetime of healthy eating habits. This is sometimes easier said than done, though, and too often the hectic day-to-day busyness of life makes it difficult to be as healthy as we want.

The Importance of Healthy Food Choices     

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), obesity has nearly tripled around the world since 1975. Sadly, this widespread increase has also included hundreds of millions of young children and adolescents. In addition to increasing the likelihood that these children will maintain unhealthy eating habits into adulthood, early childhood obesity also increases the chances of developing obesity-related health conditions like heart disease and type 2 diabetes. And while public health interventions are important, ultimately parental behavior and family environment will be more influential factors.

Even aside from avoiding early childhood weight gain, parental feeding practices and diet quality can have a huge impact on a child’s overall health and well-being. Below are some of the most important considerations for parents when determining a child’s dietary intake:

  • Growth and development: A key part of growing up is of course growing; ensuring that a child’s weight and height progress in a healthy way is largely about energy intake and nutrition. Children need enough calories from a variety of foods, but they also need essential nutrients like vitamins and minerals that the body uses for growing new tissues, bones, and muscles.
  • Immune system: Nutrient-rich foods also support a robust immune system, helping children fight off illnesses and infections. Vitamins A, C, E, B6, and B12 and minerals like zinc and iron all play crucial roles in immune function.
  • Digestive health: For many children (and adults), fruit and vegetable consumption is often too low, yet their dietary fiber content plays an important role in overall digestive health as well as reducing the risk of problems like diarrhea and constipation.
  • Cognitive function: Physical growth is obviously an important part of child health, but cognitive development is equally important for learning and scholastic achievement. Children who maintain a healthy diet are more likely to concentrate, learn, and realize their full academic potential.
  • Weight management: A child’s weight status may fluctuate throughout their early life, but encouraging healthy food choices can help them maintain a healthy body weight even into their adult years.
  • Social development: Eating habits aren’t limited to the actual food that is eaten; the eating environment and social dynamics of the family are also significant factors in development of eating habits and dietary self-regulation.

What Causes Childhood Obesity?

Given that the prevalence of child obesity is higher than ever, it’s important to understand the factors that contribute. And since preschool children and children aged 5-19 can have such a wide range of weights and body types, obesity is usually determined by evaluating body mass index (BMI), a comparison of the child’s height and weight. While not perfect, BMI can be a decent predictor of obesity; most doctors consider a child to be obese if their BMI is at or above the 95th percentile for their age and sex.

Even after establishing the fact of a child’s obesity, though, the question remains: what caused it? Unfortunately the stigma of being overweight or obese is another big challenge, and it can affect parental perception about the numerous factors at play:

  • Diet: Diet is naturally one of the most important factors; the typical American diet, for instance, is often high-fat, high-calorie, and lacking in key nutrients. This is partly because many of the cheapest and easiest to obtain items are basically highly processed junk food. Also, children’s food preferences are famously simple and full of sugar.
  • Sedentary lifestyle: Parents and caregivers are role models in many ways, and kids whose parents live a sedentary lifestyle are also more likely to have children who are sedentary. A lack of exercise and physical activity in general is another part of why obesity is so common.
  • Environmental factors: The physical and social environment around both young and old children plays just as much of a role in a child’s development as the food environment. Living in neighborhoods with limited access to fresh, healthy foods (areas known as food deserts) or safe outdoor spaces can hinder a child's ability to make healthy choices.
  • Socioeconomic status: The unfortunate and seemingly paradoxical truth is that children from low-income households are at a higher risk of developing obesity; this is mostly because having limited financial resources often leads to food insecurity and a reliance on low-cost, energy-dense foods that tend to increase appetite and lead to overeating.

Parental Strategies for Improving Children’s Diets

Some of the factors that contribute to childhood obesity are either difficult or impossible to control or change. Nevertheless, there are still a number of steps any parent can take to improve a child’s diet and overall health:

  • Lead by example: Children often model their eating habits after adults, so you can make a big difference simply by setting a good example. If they see you moderating your food intake and choosing healthy options, they’ll be much more likely to do the same.
  • Food variety: Various studies and systematic reviews from recent years have shown that there are numerous benefits to having a wide range of whole and unprocessed foods from different food groups, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. Kids are often uncomfortable with new foods, but they do well when given more options.
  • Eat together: Family meals are a great opportunity to model good eating habits and encourage conversation, so whenever possible, eat meals together as a family.
  • Gradual changes: Suddenly switching to a highly restrictive diet may be distressing for kids, so it’s better to gradually introduce new foods or healthier versions of favorite foods over a period of time.
  • Get the kids involved: Including children in the planning and preparation for meals can increase their interest in new or different foods. But it can also help them learn about how to make choices and determine whether something is healthy.

Weight Loss for Adults

There’s no doubt that parents have a tremendous amount of influence over a child’s development, and that very much includes their long-term eating habits. Parents and other adults, though, don’t have anyone checking on our eating habits and other lifestyle choices. We’re on our own, trying to do the best we can, even though the same sorts of forces are influencing us and sometimes leading to unhealthy habits that lead to weight gain.
At True You Weight Loss, we understand how busy and complicated life can be. Trying to raise a family and meet all your financial obligations often leaves little time for dieting or exercise. If like most Americans you’ve repeatedly tried to lose weight without success, you’re not alone. That’s why at True You we offer a series of non-surgical weight loss solutions that can provide a new, reliable approach that can lead to long-term success. To learn more about what True You has to offer, please contact us today to request a consultation.

Dr. Christopher McGowan
Dr. Christopher McGowan

Dr. Christopher McGowan, MD, a leader in endobariatrics, specializes in non-surgical obesity treatments and is triple-board-certified in Internal Medicine, Gastroenterology, and Obesity Medicine. Renowned for pioneering endoscopic sleeve gastroplasty (ESG) with over 2,000 procedures, his global influence and research contributions define him as a top expert.

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