N° 24 | June 2008

Do adolescents from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds have unsupportive home food environments?

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Despite the health benefits of a nutritious diet, many adolescents have diets that are less than optimal1, 2, particularly those from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. For example, adolescents of low socioeconomic position (SEP) tend to consume fewer fruits and vegetables and more high fat foods than their counterparts of higher SEP3, 4. Why adolescents of low SEP have poorer diets is not known. However, lack of knowledge about the positive aspects of healthy eating (and negative impacts of unhealthy eating), lack of skills necessary to prepare nutritious food, different priorities, or inability to afford healthy foods, may be possible reasons. Another possible reason is that adolescents of low SEP have less supportive home food environments. In a recent article, we examined whether low SEP adolescents have less supportive family mealtime environments, fewer eating rules and poorer home availability of fruits and vegetables than adolescents of high SEP5.

Youth Eating Patterns (YEP) study

To examine whether aspects of the home food environment vary across SEP, we invited year seven and nine students from secondary schools in metropolitan and non-metropolitan régions of Victoria, Australia, to complete an online food habits survey in 2004 and 2005. A total of 3,264 students (48% girls) from 37 schools completed the YEP survey during class time. We also invited their parents to complete a separate survey, which included questions about their own (and their partners) demographics, including highest level of education. We then used maternal education as our indicator of SEP.

Less supportive family mealtimes?

Less supportive family mealtime environments may partly explain the poorer diets of low SEP adolescents. Our study found that adolescents of less educated mothers were more likely to report that they were always allowed to watch television during mealtimes. Television-viewing at mealtimes has previously been shown to be associated with poor eating choices and decreased family interactions6, 7, and has previously been reported to occur more frequently in households of poorly educated mothers6. Our study also found that family mealtime environments of high SEP adolescents were more conducive to healthy eating, with adolescents of more highly educated mothers more likely to report that vegetables were always served at dinner, that the evening meal was never an unpleasant time for the family and that the evening meal was always or usually a time when their family really talked and caught up with each other.

Fewer eating rules?

In contrast to previous studies with children, which found less educated mothers to be less likely to implement eating rules in the home8, 9, our study found that eating rules were not associated with maternal education in adolescents. The lack of any relationship between eating rules and maternal education in adolescents may reflect the diminishing control parents have over their children’s food choices as they move from childhood to adolescence9 or the opposing effects (both negative and positive) that parental use of eating rules may have on children’s and adolescents’ diets10, 11.

More unhealthy foods in the cupboard at home?

Lower availability of healthy foods and greater availability of unhealthy foods in homes of low SEP adolescents may also partly explain their poorer diets. Our study found that adolescents whose mothers were poorly educated were more likely to report that unhealthy foods (e.g. soft drink, potato chips, and confectionary) were always or usually available at home. In contrast, adolescents whose mothers were more highly educated were more likely to report that fruit was always or usually available at home. These findings are consistent with previous studies, which found a significant association between education level and food purchasing, with less educated respondents being less likely to purchase grocery items that were consistent with the dietary guidelines recommendations12.

Conclusions

This study highlights how home food availability and aspects of the family mealtime environment of adolescents differ across SEP. Interventions aimed at improving adolescent nutrition should focus on encouraging parents, particularly those from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, to increase the home availability of healthy food (e.g. fruit and vegetables) and to provide family mealtime environments that are supportive of healthy eating (e.g. limited television-viewing during meals).

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