Mom's Feeding Habits Tied to Kids' Body Fat

Should parents pressure their kids to be members of the "clean plate club"? Experts say that when it comes to food, too much interest in what's on your child's plate can be a bad thing.

A new study, published in the current issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, finds that a mother's approach to feeding may have some unintended consequences on her kids' body fat.

Researchers measured the body fat mass of 120 African-American and white children who were between the ages of 7 and 14. They also gathered information about maternal feeding practices assessing how mothers monitored food intake, pressured their children to eat, restricted certain foods or took responsibility for feeding, as well as their concern about their child becoming overweight and being forced to diet.

While the connection remains unclear, the study found that a mother's concern about her child being overweight and her pressure to get the child to eat were directly related to the child's total fat mass. Mothers who were concerned had fatter children, whereas mothers who pressured their kids to eat had children who were skinnier.

"The big problem is chicken and egg," says Donna Spruijt-Metz, assistant professor of research in the department of preventative medicine at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine. "Were these kids getting fat because the mother was concerned, or were the kids fat and therefore the mother became concerned?" Or similarly, were mothers pressuring their skinny children to eat because they were too skinny, or were the kids skinny because they were being pressured to eat?

What Moms Think Matters

The two feeding behaviors accounted for 15 percent of the difference in total fat mass, more than could be accounted for by how many calories the children ate.

While the study does not address why they are related to fat mass, there are some interesting possibilities.

"We found that really the most important thing related to a child's fat mass was what mom was thinking about her own child's weight," says Spruijt-Metz. "We can say from the data that we have here — and because we have seen many similar results — that regardless of the chicken or egg question, the compelling concern is not helping your kids lose weight. … However they got there, it's not working."

Experts say that such techniques can backfire because they can adversely influence the way that a child regulates their own food intake.

For example, "The pressure to clean your plate starts to give the message that it doesn't matter if you're hungry or not, just eat everything that's there," says Elizabeth Ward, a registered dietitian and author of Healthy Foods, Healthy Kids. "That really upsets the internal control system that a child is born with."

'Do As I Do'

With childhood obesity estimates as high as 25 percent, what should parents be doing if they are concerned about their child's weight? Experts say, the answer is on their own plates.

"You really need to look at yourself first," says Ward. "The first step is to look at your own body image."

For example, parents who eat poorly or make comments about their own diets or body fat are unwitting bad examples for their children.

"Generally speaking, we need to accept that mom is the gatekeeper in many ways," adds Ward. "Her relationship with food truly affects her child's weight now, but can actually affect her child's health in decades to come."

But the good news, say experts is that these approaches to eating are modifiable, unlike some other determinants of adult weight like genetics.

"This study also presents a lot of opportunity because it really drives home the point that childhood and adolescence is when parents can lay the groundwork for a child's eating habits that they take with them into adulthood," explains Ward.