URC

THE EFFECTS OF PARENTAL INFLUENCE
ON THE EATING HABITS OF A CHILD

Brianna Cooper

The Master's College


Abstract

The purpose of this study was to exam the influence on college students’ eating habits. The research objectives were to ascertain whether eating habits were influenced by parents and whether students were still eating in the same manner as they were raised. Participants (n=32) in the study completed a survey and personal data sheet. Results showed that parents of these participants did not have a direct affect on cleaning their plate, but students currently do struggle with overeating. They continue the practice of eating with others that was established by family meals while growing up, and they eat the same meals or types of food as they did as children. The paper concludes with some recommendations for further study.

Introduction

            What is true of childhood traumas in relation to abuse is just as true for cultural learning regarding food. The rest of children’s lives will be dominated and regulated by the rules about food that they learned as children (Brink, Ferguson, & Sharma, 1999). Specific food habits are found to be dependent upon the subject having been fed that way as a child, indicating that childhood food habits persist into late adolescence (Branen & Fletcher, 1999).
            Parents supply and guide their children’s intake of food while the child is growing. It is under these circumstances that children are taught, by the influence of their parents, to exercise internal or external control of eating (Branen & Fletcher, 1999). Whether or not these eating habits, developed at an early age through observation and practice, stay with the child through adulthood is unknown. 

            The literature demonstrates the significant impact of early experiences with food and the attitudes about nutrition influenced by parents, control of the feeding environment, positive and negative behaviors, and eating habits. 

Parental Influence

            Parents shape their children’s eating environments in a variety of ways: through the choice of an infant feeding method, by the foods they make available and accessible, by direct modeling influences, by the extent of media exposure in the home, and by the way they interact with children in the eating context. Parents’ feeding practices can exert a major influence on children’s food preferences and on developing control of children’s food intake (Birch & O Fisher, 1998). Adolescents also perceive their parents influencing them in a number of ways. This includes parental eating and cooking behaviors, food purchases, rules regarding eating and meals, parental concerns about nutrition, family meal patterns, and overall parent-child relations (Neumark-Sztainer, Story, Perry, & Casey, 1999). 
Adolescents that participated in a focus group study to discover factors that influence their food choices discussed the influence of their parents’ time availability on the type of foods they eat. They talked about their parents being busy, mainly due to work. A seventh grade boy reported, “I eat fast food two or three times a week because my mother and father are busy. They don’t have time to make food, so I get fast food” (Neumark-Sztainer, Story, Perry, & Casey, 1999, p. 6). Other influences come through observations of family meal times. Parental prompts to eat were positively associated with time spent eating and the degree of overweight in children. It was found that the sequencing of parental prompts to eat were preceded by food refusals by the child and followed by the child eating. These findings suggest that parental prompts to eat may act to oppose children’s own attempts to control the amount of consumed food and promote consumption within a meal (Birch, O Fisher, 1998). A study comparing college students’ current eating habits to recollections of their childhood food practices indicated that children are more likely to like a new food if they have tasted it a number of times. Parents may reflect their concern about children’s reluctance to eat new foods by forcing children to eat. Approximately half of the respondents who recalled being forced to eat a disliked food liked the food at the time of the survey and half did not (Branen & Fletcher, 1999). The parental responsibility involved in the eating-together approach should not be underestimated. The practices of shopping and cooking nutritiously as well as eating together as a family are very difficult in many households, especially when both parents work or a single parent runs the household. However, the structure provided by having dinner together as a family is integral to a child’s health. It’s at the table that children, particularly young children, learn about appropriate eating habits from parents and older siblings (Tufts, 1993). 

            Children are good learners, and they learn best by example. Parents need to set a good example for their children by eating a variety of foods and being physically active. This will teach children healthy lifestyle habits that they can follow for the rest of their lives (Health & Human Services, 1997).

Self Control versus External Control

            Within the feeding environment, parents and children work out the struggle between dependence and external control (being fed) and independence and self-control (feeding oneself). The amount and style of control exhibited by adults has an influence on the child’s development of self-control. In an authoritarian/demanding or adult controlled feeding style, parents control all aspects of children’s eating, including what, when, and how much the children eat. In the permissive/indulgent or child-controlled feeding style, children control the eating environment, including selection of food, timing of meals, and amounts of food eaten. Parents using an authoritative/responsive or cooperative feeding style share the responsibility in the feeding relationship with their children. Parents control what is served, and their children control the amount they eat. The cooperative style of feeding most closely matches the current recommendations about optimal environments for children’s development of self-control of energy intake (Branen & Fletcher, 1999). One condition of a study conducted on the eating behaviors of children focused on internal cues of hunger and satiety as controls of food intake. In this condition, children showed clear evidence of adjusting their intake in response to the energy-density differences in the first course. In the other condition, child-feeding practices included rewarding children for cleaning their plates and a focus on external cues to control eating, such as the amount of food remaining on the plate. In the latter condition, all evidence of responsiveness to the energy content of the foods disappeared, and rewarding them for eating significantly increased children’s intake. These findings suggested a powerful role for child-feeding practices in shaping how much children eat and the extent to which children are responsive to the energy density of the diet in controlling their food intake (Birch & O Fisher, 1998). 

Once parents have put a decent (meaningful, healthful as well as good tasting) meal on the table, they have completed their job and have to let it go at that. That is, although it is up to them to decide what the children eat and even when they eat, it is not their business to decide how much they eat. Parents have to trust their children’s instincts, leave them free of the emotional discomfort caused by outside interference, and acknowledge their biological right to decide how much they eat (Tufts, 1993). 

Results of a Positive Influence

            The food environment the parent provides shapes children’s preferences and food acceptance patterns, which in turn are linked to children’s adiposity. These affects are mediated primarily by the patterns of preference that children have developed as a result of these exposure patterns. The early exposure that children have to fruits and vegetables and to foods high in energy, sugar, and fat may play an important role in establishing a hierarchy of food preferences and selection (Birch & O Fisher, 1998). Teaching healthy eating practices early will help children approach eating with the right attitude—that food should be enjoyed and is for necessary growth, development, and for energy to keep the body running (Health & Human Services, 1997).

Results of a Negative Influence

            Nutritional intake during adolescence is important for growth, long-term health promotions, and the development of lifelong behaviors. Without proper nutritional intake there may be long-term health implications. For example: being overweight as an adolescent is associated with being overweight as an adult; fat intake during adolescence may be associated with increased risk for coronary heart disease; and low dietary calcium intake has been shown to lead to low bone density in adolescents, as well as the possibility of osteoporosis later in life (Neumark-Sztainer, Story, Perry, & Casey, 1999). Several investigators have recently reported links among parental adiposity, parental fat intake, and children’s adiposity and fat intake, which suggests that familial patterns of adiposity may be partially mediated by familial similarities in diet composition (Birch & O Fisher, 1998). Parents who control their children’s feeding practices can have negative and unintended effects of children’s food preferences and the developing controls of food intake. It is likely that such practices foster rather than prevent the development of childhood obesity and eating problems (Birch & O Fisher, 1998).

Eating Habits Formed

            As stated earlier, Brink, Ferguson, & Sharma (1999) hold that cultural learning related to food during childhood dominates the rest of their lives. Specific current food habits, such as eating dessert, cleaning one’s plate, and eating regularly scheduled meals, are dependent on the subject having been fed that way as a child, indicating that childhood food habits persist into late adolescence. Also, nutrition educators find that current consideration of nutrition is dependent on parents talking about nutrition during childhood. This confirms the belief that nutrition education during childhood can have long-range positive impacts (Branen & Fletcher, 1999). Despite their struggle for autonomy and experimentation, adolescents eventually revert to preferring the same foods as their parents. Based on analysis of adolescent food-related diaries, the conclusion was that adolescent ideas about eating reflected values learned from family, friends, teachers, and mass media. Older adolescents’ memories of their childhood caregiver’s feeding styles and practices were positively correlated with their perceptions of styles and practices they plan to use in feeding their own children (Branen & Fletcher, 1999).

Method

            This section presents the investigative methods and procedures for the study: purpose, data collection, sample, and statistical procedures. 

Purpose of the Study

            The purpose of this study was to determine whether or not college students had a permanent influence of their parents on their eating habits. Specific research questions were:
1.      Are a person’s eating habits determined in childhood through parental influence?
2.      Are students at The Master’s College eating in the same manner they were raised?

These research questions provided the focus of this study, which would be categorized as applied research because it “addresses practical problems” (Brown, Cozby, Kee, & Worden, 1999).

Data Collection

            Data for this study were collected through the administration of a survey instrument. A personal data sheet requested demographic data in addition to the responses to the survey instrument. The survey instrument (Appendix A) contained five questions using a five-item Likert scale. A personal data sheet requested demographic data. 

Sample

            The subjects for this study were randomly chosen students attending The Master's College during the spring semester of 2000. The students resided in Hotchkiss, Sweazy, Slight, Dixon, and Waldock dormitories. Thirty-five copies of the survey instrument were distributed; thirty-two were returned and thirty-two were used in this study. The data collected from the thirty-two subjects are discussed in subsequent sections, commencing with the reporting of the demographic findings. 

Statistical Procedures

            The software STATPACK was employed to examine the data; the desired scale of measurement was interval. This is a scale of measurement in which the intervals between numbers on the scale are all equal in size (Brown, Cozby, Kee, & Worden, 1999). The Chi-squared statistical test was used because the data consists of frequencies (Brown, Cozby, Kee, & Worden, 1999). A .01 scale of significance was used to test the results of the study. Data retrieved from the demographic portion of the survey instrument were reported in percentages and tables.

Results

Demographics

            There were a total of 32 students in the study: 12 males (37.5%) and 20 females (62.5%). Ages were distributed as follows: 2 age 18 (6.25%), 8 age 19 (25%), 10 age 20 (31.25%), 6 age 21 (18.75%), 3 age 22 (9.375%), and 1 each age 23, 24, 25 (3.125% each).

Research Question One
            Are a person's eating habits determined in childhood through parental influence? Questions 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 of the survey addressed this research question. Table 1 shows the responses.
Table 1
Responses to Eating Habits Survey
 

Never

Almost
Never

Sometimes

Almost
Always

Always

X2

1. How often did your parents tell you to clean your plate?


4 (.9)


8 (.4)


10 (2.025)


6 (.025)


4 (.9)


4.25

2. Have you ever struggled with overeating?


3 (1.806)


7 (.056)


16 (14.4)


5 (.306)


1 (4.556)


21.125*

3. How often did your family have a meal together over the course of a week while you were growing up?

0 (6.4)

1 (4.556)

5 (.306)

11 (3.306)

15 (11.556)

26.125*

4. How often do you now eat meals with people?


1 (4.556)


0 (6.4)


3 (1.806)


14 (9.025)


14 (9.025)


30.813*

5. Do you find yourself eating the same meals or same types of food that
 you were raised with?

1 (4.556)

2 (3.025)

14 (9.025)

13 (6.806)

2 (3.025)

26.438*

Note: Chi-square (X2) in parenthesis; * = p <.01

Because the computed Chi-squared value (4.250) is less than the tabled Chi-squared value (13.277) at the .01 level, for the survey question addressing the impact of parents forcing students to clean their plate, the conclusion may be drawn that these parents did not have a direct affect on eating habits by telling their children to clean their plate. This finding deviates from the research conducted by Birch & O Fisher (1998) who found that parental prompts to eat seemed to oppose children’s own attempts to control the amount of food consumed.

            The computed Chi-squared value (21.125) is greater than the tabled Chi-squared value (13.277) at the .01 level for the survey question determining the number of students who struggle with overeating, so the conclusion may be drawn that there are a significant number of students at The Master's College that struggle with overeating. This finding may or may not align with the research conducted by Birch & O Fisher (1998) who found that “Parents who control their child’s feeding practices can have negative and unintended effects of children’s food preferences and the developing controls of food intake” (p. 10). Because parents in this sample did not verbally promote “clean your plate,” control over food intake is not known.
            For the survey question addressing the frequency of family meals throughout childhood, the conclusion may be drawn that most students surveyed from The Master's College ate meals with their family regularly while growing up (X2 = 26.25; p> .01). This aligns with the research conducted at Tufts, which found that “The structure provided by having dinner together as a family is integral to a child’s health. It’s at the table that children, particularly young children, learn about appropriate eating habits from parents and older siblings” (1993, p. 5). 
Because the computed Chi-squared value (30.813) is greater than the tabled Chi-squared value (13.277) at the .01 level, for the survey question addressing the frequency of meals currently eaten with others, the conclusion may be drawn that students stay with their eating habits learned in childhood and currently eat with people as a result of having frequent family meals as a child. This aligns with research conducted by Branen & Fletcher (1999) who found that “Specific current food habits, such as eating desert, cleaning one’s plate, and eating regularly scheduled meals, are dependent on the subject having been fed that way as a child, indicating that childhood food habits persist into late adolescence” (p. 6).
            The computed Chi-squared value (26.438) is greater than the tabled Chi-squared value (13.277) at the .01 level, for the survey question addressing the frequency of meals eaten currently that are the same as meals eaten as a child, so the conclusion may be drawn that most students surveyed eat the same meals or types of food as they did as children. This aligns with research conducted by Branen & Fletcher who found that “Despite their struggle for autonomy and experimentation, adolescents eventually revert to preferring the same foods as their parents” (p.1).

            Except for the first item and possibly the second item in the survey it appears that the answer for this sample to the question of whether persons’ eating habits are determined in childhood through parental influence is “Yes.”

Research Question Two

Are students at The Master's College eating in the same manner they were raised? Questions 3, 4, 5 of the survey (Table 1) addressed this research question. Because the values were significant at the .01 level, the data seem to indicate that the answer to this question is “Yes.”

Summary

            The results of the Chi-squared test suggest that (a) parents of this sample did not directly influence their children to clean their plate, (b) many students struggle with overeating, (c) most students eat meals with others and may have been influenced by eating family meals while growing up, and (d) almost half of the students eat the same meals and same types of food as they did during childhood. 

Discussion

Although the sample size is small and the Chi-squared Test is more appropriate for larger samples, it appears that some conclusions can be made regarding the data that were collected and analyzed in this study. The results coincide with what most researchers have concluded. A significant number of students were not told by their parents to clean their plate, however a question was not asked regarding rewards for eating. No conclusions can be made about the reason that a significant number of students reported that they often struggled with overeating. Much of the research shows that telling children to clean their plate causes habits of overeating (Branen & Fletcher, 1999). Birch and O Fisher (1998) reported that child feeding practices that include rewarding children for cleaning their plates and focusing on external cues to control eating, such as the amount of food remaining on the plate, affected the child’s responsiveness to the energy content of the food and the child’s intake was significantly increased by the rewarding. These findings suggested a role for child-feeding practices in shaping how much children eat and the extent to which children are responsive to the energy density of the diet in controlling their food intake (Birch & O Fisher, 1998). Although the student response to the survey question did not align with multiple studies, it is possible students either have forgotten their parent's feeding style, since it was numerous years ago, or students have developed the habit of overeating through other parental influences. 
            This study revealed that a significant number of students at The Master's College often ate meals with their families while growing up. Subsequently, they often eat meals with others, thus suggesting that eating habits developed as a child, continue to be practiced into adulthood. This aligned with research that indicated how specific current food habits, such as eating dessert, cleaning one's plate and eating regularly scheduled meals, are dependent on the subject having been fed that way as a child, indicating that childhood food habits persist into late adolescence (Branen & Fletcher, 1999).

            Most students at The Master's College continue to eat the same meals and same types of foods as during childhood. Once parents choose their children's food selection, the children become accustomed to certain types of food and certain meals. It is these foods and meals that children typically like the most and will continue to choose even when the parents are no longer making the food selection. Despite their struggle for autonomy and experimentation, adolescents eventually revert to preferring the same foods as their parents (Branen & Fletcher, 1999). 

Recommendations for Further Study

            This study provides some information regarding whether or not the parents of students at The Master’s College had a permanent influence on their child’s eating habits. Additional questions pertaining to the effects of parental influence on a child's eating habits warrant further investigation; thus the following recommendations for further research and study are offered:
1.      Examine the validity and reliability of the survey instrument. 
2.      Replicate the study, using a different population, to determine the effects of parental influence on a child's eating habits.
3.      Determine the specific causes of childhood obesity.
4.      Study the effects of internal- versus external-control feeding styles.
In light of the findings of this study, it appears that early experiences with food and nutrition may contribute to food habits that persist throughout adulthood. Nutrition and parenting educators may wish to incorporate the literature review and these findings in curricula.

References

Birch, L., & O Fisher, J. (1998, March). Development of eating behaviors among children and adolescents. Pediatrics, 101, 539-541.
Branen, L., & Fletcher, J. (1999, Nov/Dec). Comparison of college students’ current eating habits and recollection of their childhood food practices. Journal of Nutrition Education, 31, 304-310.
Brink, P., Ferguson, K., & Sharma, A. (1999, Jan-Mar). Childhood memories about food: The successful dieters project. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, 12, 17-25.
Brown, K., Cozby, P., Kee, D., & Worden, P. (1999). Research Methods in Human Development. New York: McGraw-Hill. 
Neumark-Sztainer,D., Story, M., Perry, C., & Casey, M. (1999, Aug). Factors influencing food choices of adolescents: Findings from focus-group discussions with adolescents. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 99, 929-934. 
Tufts University. (1993, Dec). Warning: Keep dieting out of reach of children. Diet and Nutrition Letter, 1-5. 
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (1997, Jan). Helping your overweight child, 1-12.

Appendix A

Eating Habits

This survey is being conducted for a Home Economics research class to determine whether or not parental influence has a permanent affect on the eating habits of students here at The Master’s College. Please fill out the survey honestly and completely and it will be a great assistance in my research. Thank you. Return to Brianna Cooper or send to Box 1201.

Circle the one that applies to you

Gender:     M    F                                             Age:    18  19  20  21  22

1.  How often did your parents tell you to clean your plate?

1                      2                      3                      4                      5

never        almost never      sometimes     almost always         always

2.  Have you ever struggled with overeating?

1                      2                      3                      4                      5

never           almost never       sometimes     almost always        always

3.  How often did your family have a meal together over the course of a
     week while you were growing up?

1                      2                      3                      4                      5

never          almost never       sometimes      almost always        always

4.  How often do you now eat meals with people?

1                      2                      3                      4                      5

never         almost never        sometimes      almost always       always

5.    Do you find yourself eating the same meals or same types of food that
 you were raised with?

1                      2                      3                      4                      5

never          almost never      sometimes      almost always        always 


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