FRIDAY, June 5, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- Parents' eating habits don't seem to influence their children's food choices as much as experts have thought, new research suggests.
"We found that the resemblance in dietary intake between parents and children is weak," said study senior author Dr. Youfa Wang, an associate professor of international health and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. However, he added, "there is some effect."
Wang found that children whose parents ate a healthier diet -- and that was a small minority -- were three times more likely to have a healthy diet compared to the kids whose parents did not have a very healthy diet.
Overall, however, he said that "it seems that parents' influence is quite moderate, much weaker than what many people have believed."
The study is published online in Social Science & Medicine.
The findings suggest that other factors, such as peer influence and television viewing, may be more powerful influences on what children eat.
For the study, Wang and study co-author May Beydoun evaluated two 24-hour dietary recalls from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Continuing Survey of Food Intake by Individuals 1994-96. In all, they looked at the food intake of nearly 5,000 persons -- 1,061 fathers, 1,230 mothers, 1,370 sons and 1,322 daughters.
The researchers compared intake and assessed diet quality based on the USDA Healthy Eating Index Score. A perfect score is 100, and the index takes into account a person's intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy products, meat, beans, oils, saturated fat and sodium.
The average scores of the parents and children were about 48 to 50, well below the score of above 80 that the USDA deems a good diet. Only 10 percent of Americans got a score greater than 80 in 2000, according to the USDA.
Wang looked at the overall correlation between children's and parents' intake. The correlation measure range is between minus 1 and 1, with zero reflecting no resemblance and 1 perfect resemblance. The correlation, overall, ranged from 0.26 to 0.29, using various combinations such as mother-daughter and father-son.
Put more simply: "The variation in children's diet that could be explained by their parent's diet was less than 10 percent," Wang said, "[and] 90 percent of the variation in the children's diet were explained by factors other than the parent's diet."
The results are something of a surprise, said Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis and past president of the American Dietetic Association.
So what's a parent to do? After brushing up on your own diet, "take the kids to the store, let them see and smell the produce," Diekman suggested. "Talk about how you choose meat and how you decide which dairy foods to buy."
Let them help you cook healthy foods, too, she said.
Wang agreed that parents should aim to eat healthier themselves and encourage their children to follow similar habits. Schools, too, need to make a stronger commitment to getting the healthy diet message out, Wang said.
To learn more about healthy eating for kids, visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture.