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By Nutrition Team  


Saturday/Sunday, March 21-22, 2009.



Research is beginning to show just how vital a role parents play, in passing on good eating habits to their children.


Children mimic their parents, especially little girls. They dress up in their mothers’ clothes, experiment with make-up and play ‘Mummies and Daddies’. The tendency for girls in particular to copy not just their mother’s fashion and beauty habits, but also her attitudes and eating habits, is well documented.


A recent study has shown how overweight mothers have a significantly higher proportion of pre-school daughters with weight problems, compared to sons. It would also seem that current obsessions with food and dieting are being passed through females from generation to generation.


The transfer of attitudes can be quite subtle. It can be as innocent as a mother saying, "I hate my hips" and eating differently from others in the family. Daughters look, listen and learn to adopt certain behaviours to try to change what they consider to be ‘problem areas’ of their bodies. Sometimes restriction can be more overt and perhaps more damaging, with families actively monitoring, and restricting, young girls' food intake.

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One recent study, conducted at the USDA Children's Nutrition Research Centre, in Houston, Texas aimed to determine whether parents' restriction of young girls' access to palatable snack-type foods actually promoted the consumption of those foods and caused negative attitudes to food and eating.


Intake of 10 snack foods was measured immediately following a standard lunch, in 197 four- to six-year-old girls. Girls' self-evaluation about their eating was assessed following the snack session. In addition, reports of parental restriction were obtained from mothers, fathers and girls. The results indicated the more restricted the girls normally were from eating snack-type foods, the less control they showed when these foods were freely available.


Parents' restriction also resulted in negative attitudes towards eating among the girls. The negative attitudes were apparent when they thought about these foods as being off-limits. In other words, restriction of certain foods led to kind of a phobia of those foods.


These findings indicate that restricting young girls' access to palatable foods such as chocolate bars and crisps may promote the intake of those foods and may also generate negative feelings towards them, for example, chocolate is bad.


Of course, mothers are not solely responsible for negative body image and attitudes to eating in young girls. The media and wider society also play a part in promoting super-thin role models and adding to the pressure on women and girls to conform to thin ideals.


However, if women are aware that attitudes can be transferred so easily to vulnerable young minds, this awareness may be just what is required to replace negative influences and promote more positive eating behaviour and body image.

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