Restrictive feeding passes eating problems from mother to daughter at early age

May 10, 2000

University Park, Pa. - Problems and concerns about eating and weight can be passed from mother to daughter via restrictive feeding practices when the child is as young as five years of age, increasing the risk of childhood overweight, a new Penn State study has shown.

Dr. Leann Birch, professor and head of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, says "Familial overweight is commonly believed to be exclusively a genetic problem and, as a result, people tend to think that what happens in the family environment doesn't matter. While heavy mothers tend to have heavy daughters, our results indicate that these familial resemblances arise from both genetic factors and the use of child-feeding practices that foster problems in eating and increase daughters' relative weight."

The Penn State study, co-authored by Birch and Jennifer O. Fisher, research associate, is detailed in the May issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in the paper, Mothers' Child-Feeding Practices Influence Daughters' Eating and Weight. It is the first study of its kind with pre-school children. The results are consistent with Birch's previous research which shows that stringent controls and restrictive child feeding practices do not produce the intended effect of helping children establish adequate self-control of food intake but rather, actually promote patterns of intake that are readily influenced by the presence and availability of palatable foods.

The 197 White mothers, who with their daughters participated in the study, completed questionnaires to measure their own restraint in eating and their perceptions of and concerns about their daughters' risk of overweight. Questionnaires were also used to measure the extent to which the mothers controlled their daughters' eating, restricted access to high calorie-high fat foods and limited snacking.

In general, mothers who reported that they were working hard to control their own weight, indicated that they tended to use more restrictive feeding practices to control their daughter's weight. Daughters who were receiving more restrictive parental management also tended to be heavier.

In another part of the study, the girls were assessed to see how they responded to the availability of high calorie-high fat snacks when their mothers were not monitoring them. After the girls had a self-selected lunch and indicated they were no longer hungry, they were asked to taste test 10 sweet and savory foods. Finally, they were shown a variety of toys available for a play session as well as a variety of snack foods, including popcorn, potato chips, chocolate chip cookies, fruit chew candy, chocolate bars, ice cream and frozen yogurt. The girl was told she could play with the toys or eat any of the foods while the experimenter left the room. Girls whose mothers had indicated using a high degree of control and restriction had greater intakes of the snack foods. Girls who consumed more snack foods when not hungry also tended to be heavier. The researchers write, "Parents' use of restrictive feeding practices may actually promote patterns of intake that are readily influenced by the presence and availability of palatable foods."

So, what's a parent to do to promote children's self-regulation? In a recent interview, Birch offered these suggestions: 1) make a large variety of low energy density foods that have fewer calories per ounce, such as fruits and vegetables, available so that kids will learn to like them. 2) Get good information about portion size so that children do not learn to overeat and parents have reasonable expectations about how much children need to eat. Reliable information about portion size can be found on 3) Allow snacks in moderation. Don't take a Draconian approach.
EDITORS: Jennifer Fisher is at (814) 865-2570 or by email.

Penn State

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