Living With Kids Could Add Pounds

Study finds those with children in the home consume more saturated fat

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HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, Dec. 29, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Here's something parents might get from their kids: fat.

According to a new study, adults living with children eat more saturated fats than adults who don't live with children. The extra fat adds up to almost an entire frozen pepperoni pizza each week.

But it doesn't have to be that way.

"It's not that parents are doomed to the fate of eating terribly," said study author Dr. Helena Laroche, an associate in the department of internal medicine at the University of Iowa College of Medicine, in Iowa City. "Adults influence children, and children influence adults, and it's important that we focus on the whole family."

The epidemic of obesity in the United States is claiming more and more victims. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 30 percent of adults aged 20 and older are overweight, totaling more than 60 million people. The percentage of young people who are overweight has tripled since 1980. Sixteen percent of children and teens (more than 9 million people) are overweight.

And Americans as a group consume more saturated fat, which is linked to heart disease, and total fat than is recommended. Although the percentage of calories derived from fat and saturated fat decreased from 1971 to 2000, the total intake remained the same or increased because overall food intake went up.

While a number of studies have looked at how adults influence children's eating habits, far fewer have looked at how children affect adults.

The authors of this study, appearing in the Jan. 4 online edition of the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, compared a group of adults who had children under the age of 17 at home with adults who had no children living at home. Data on the overall sample of 6,600 adults came from the federal government's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey III (NHANES III). All participants had completed a questionnaire on food intake.

Compared to adults without children in the home, adults living with children ate an extra 4.9 grams of fat daily, including 1.7 grams of saturated fat.

Adults living with children in the home also ate many high-fat foods more frequently, including salty snacks, pizza, cheese, beef, ice cream, cakes and cookies, bacon and sausage, and processed meats and peanuts.

While this research cannot prove definitively that the presence of children causes the higher fat intake among adults, it does point to different eating habits in different types of households.

"Children's and adults' eating is enmeshed," said Susan Kraus, a nutritionist with Hackensack University Medical Center, in Hackensack, N.J. "It's hard to say which came first."

Specifically, adults with children in the home tended to eat "convenience" foods, perhaps related to time pressures and other constraints as well as children's preferences for high-fat, high-sugar foods.

"For a lot of parents, especially if both are working, there are time constraints getting food on the table," Kraus said. "Food also has so much symbolism, of love, attention, reward, it's something that can make life easier."

"Parents also need education just to know there are a lot of different products out there, or even to keep an open mind that a child might try something," Kraus added. "They might be in for a pleasant surprise."

Laroche has several tips for family-friendly, healthy eating:

  • Place cut fruit and cut carrots around the house. They're easy for kids and for adults to grab.
  • Choose popcorn and low-salt pretzels over high-fat potato chips.
  • Children aged 2 and older should drink lower fat milk, not whole milk.
  • Cook and bake in olive oil and avoid cooking in butter, lard or solid-stick margarine. This will decrease your intake of saturated fats.
  • Only eat fast food and pizza once a week or less.
  • When eating out, choose healthier items on the menu; order less and share rather than ordering tons of food and eating it all.
  • Don't ditch the effort just because your child refuses to eat something once. "They need to try things more than once," Laroche said. "Studies show that they need to be exposed to things a few times before they'll really try them, and parents shouldn't give up on the first try."

"When they're buying things for their children or for themselves to eat, parents need to think about healthier choices for both of them," Laroche said. "Don't buy pizza just for the children, because they're likely to eat it as well. Focus on healthy foods for everybody."

More information

To learn more about healthy eating for children, visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

SOURCES: Helena Laroche, M.D., associate, department of internal medicine, University of Iowa College of Medicine, Iowa City; Susan Kraus, R.D., nutritionist, Hackensack University Medical Center, Hackensack, N.J.; Jan. 4, 2007, Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine

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