You are what you eat and your kids are too

May 20, 2001

Study of African-American families shows role modeling is major incentive for parents to eat a healthy diet

ST. LOUIS-Warnings about increased risk of cancer and other chronic diseases from eating a high-fat diet can often fall on deaf ears. When you're young and feeling fine, it can be hard to think about the consequences of eating fatty foods that adversely affect your health 20 or 30 years from now.

But a new study at Saint Louis University School of Public Health offers another way of encouraging a healthy diet for lifelong health-eating healthy foods helps you be a good parent by being a role model for your children. The study was published in the May issue of the Journal of The American Dietetic Association.

"Parents who value being a good role model are more likely to eat better, so that their children will follow suit," said principal investigator Debra Haire-Joshu, Ph.D., professor of behavioral sciences and health education at Saint Louis University School of Public Health. "Modeling can be a powerful, more immediate motivator for parents that can serve as an effective way to encourage and intervene for dietary change in families."

The researchers investigated the association between parental modeling and eating patterns in Phase 1 of a four-year study of more than 450 African-American parents in the St. Louis area. "Modeling may be of particular importance in the African-American community, where family has an important emphasis," Dr. Haire-Joshu said.

"We found that attitudes toward food, choices in food selection, and timing of meals are in great part a result of parental modeling of behaviors," said Dr. Haire-Joshu. Almost half of the parents said they "always" or "almost always" eat foods that they want their child to eat and about 70 percent said they always sit with their child at meals.

Sixty percent of the parents said that when their child sees them enjoying fruits and vegetables, their child will usually try to eat the foods as well, but only 30 percent said that they set rules about their child eating fruits and vegetables. In addition, fewer than 20 percent reported that their child learns to eat low-fat snacks by observing them.

"Our findings suggest that, in general, African-American parents believe that they often model healthful dietary behaviors to their children," said Dr. Haire-Joshu. "However, it appears that parents are selective in which eating practices they model to their children."

For example, almost all of the parents (98 percent) reported that more than 30 percent of the calories in their diet were from fat and nearly 70 percent said they ate less than the recommended five servings of fruit and vegetables per day. "This indicates that despite the perceptions of the parents, they could improve their actual dietary behaviors," Dr. Haire-Joshu said.

Data for this study was collected through the "High Five, Low Fat" nutrition program, a community-based study designed to lower dietary fat intake and increase fruit and vegetable consumption among African-American parents. The program was developed in collaboration with Parents as Teachers, a national education program for parents of young children founded in St. Louis, with over 2000 sites nationwide.

"With the results of this study, we know that role-modeling is a great way to encourage parents to eat a healthier diet," Dr. Haire-Joshu said. "It's important to teach young parents strategies for becoming better models for their own benefit and because individual family members are influenced by family practices."

In addition, Dr. Haire-Joshu and her team expect that parents will translate these healthy eating behaviors to their children. Now that they have worked with St. Louis families that are involved in Parents as Teachers, they hope to expand this idea to Parents as Teachers groups across the country.
This study is funded through the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health.

Editor's Note: To arrange an interview with Dr. Haire-Joshu, please contact Jennifer Frakes, health sciences center media relations, at 314-977-801.

Saint Louis University

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