Diet: parents’ childhood experiences influence their children’s health behaviours

16 April 2024
alimentation famille comportements

Families play a key role in shaping health behaviours. Numerous studies have demonstrated the links between parental practices and children’s eating and physical activity habits. However, little is known about whether these parenting practices reflect all or part of parents’ childhood experiences. A recent study examined this question in a sample of Hispanic families whose children were overweight, using path analysis. The findings suggest the existence of intergenerational effects linking parents’ experience regarding meals during childhood and their children’s health behaviours. Further studies are needed to confirm these results.

While there is strong evidence of the positive effects of a healthy diet and regular physical activity from an early age (Verduci et al., 2022), fruit and vegetable consumption and physical activity levels remain insufficient among many children and adolescents. This is particularly the case in Hispanic communities in the United States (Michael et al., 2023).

Families play a crucial role in shaping these health behaviors (Mollborn et al., 2018). Numerous studies have shown that parental beliefs, attitudes and practices (see box) regarding diet and physical activity have a considerable impact on children’s habits, and may contribute to reducing the risk of chronic diseases in adulthood (Coto et al., 2019). However, to date, no study has explored the transgenerational effect of family practices: the influence of parents’ childhood experiences on the health outcomes of the next generation (children).

To address this issue, a recent study (Lovan et al., 2024) involving a sample of Hispanic families with a high prevalence of overweight and/or obesity examined two types of associations :

  • The links between parents ‘ childhood mealtime experiences, sociodemographic characteristics and health-related parenting strategies (see box);
  • The links between these parental strategies and children’ s health outcomes (diet and physical activity).

Parents’ past experiences were assessed using the “Childhood Family Mealtime Questionnaire” composed of 7 scales measuring childhood mealtime memories.

Childhood experiences condition parenting practices

Parents whose family meals were highly supervised and source of stress tended to adopt greater parental control of their children. Similarly, the importance attached to weight during childhood is associated with stricter parenting practices (monitoring, discipline, setting limits).

Finally, the importance attached to the mother’s weight during childhood is associated with greater parental reinforcement of children’s healthy behaviours. This result is inconsistent with the existing literature, but can be explained in several ways. Indeed, previous studies show that consistent maternal dieting can contribute to the development of eating disorders, which can be transmitted to offsprings (Martini et al., 2020). However, in this study, the sample only included overweight or obese children. It is therefore possible that parents who remember placing importance on their weight are seeking to create a more health-promoting environment for their children to encourage the adoption of healthy behaviors and weight loss.

Regarding socio-demographic characteristics, results showed that participants who had lived longer in the US and held higher levels of education were more relaxed about their children’s diet and physical activity. However, parental control was not associated with young people’s health outcomes.

A potential intergenerational transmission of health behaviors

To assess the effect of parental strategies on children’s health behaviors, several indicators were used :

In line with previous work, strong use of discipline and monitoring has been associated with higher fruit and vegetable consumption in children (Wilson et al., 2019; Kiefner-Burmeister, 2020). These findings indicate a possible intergenerational transmission of health behaviors. Indeed, more restrictive parental attitudes around meals, as well as greater attention to weight, lead to the adoption of similar parental strategies by future generations, which may in turn influence children’s health behaviors.

Finally, results show that greater parental monitoring is associated with a greater number of “bad days” related to children’s physical quality of life. However, this observation is not consistent with the findings of previous studies that have shown that greater monitoring is associated with positive child outcomes – lower BMI, limitation of obesogenic behaviors (Elder et al., 2010; Conlon et al., 2015; Romanos-Moreno et al., 2020; Stephenson et al., 2021). A possible explanation for this result discrepancy is that this study included children who were overweight or obese. In this context, being subjected to greater parental monitoring may have had negative effects on physical quality of life. Further research is therefore needed to confirm and generalize these findings.

A study that provides a framework for future health promotion interventions

This work suggests the existence of intergenerational continuity in parental behavior. Individuals who grew up in a formal, highly assertive environment seem to inherit and reproduce the same behaviours with more strict parenting practices with their children. This study is particularly interesting because it provides valuable information on the influence of parenting styles on the health of future generations.

The data from this work can also provide a basis for future health promotion interventions, inviting them to:

  • Focus on parental strategies and family interactions;
  • Target both parents and children when designing programs to promote a healthy lifestyle.

PEAS Scale : a tool to assess parental strategies relating to diet and physical activity

In this study, health-related parenting strategies were determined using the Parenting Strategies for Eating and Physical Activity Scale (PEAS). This tool, which was designed by Larios et al. in 2009, assesses parents’ attitudes towards their children’s nutrition and physical activity. The scale has 5 subdivisions and 26 items:

  • Monitoring: measures the frequency with which parents monitor their children’s healthy behaviours;
  • Discipline: measures the frequency of disciplinary action taken by parents against behaviors that are harmful to children’s health (e.g. consumption of sugary drinks; screen time, etc.);
  • Control: measurement of control strategies used by parents;
  • Restrictions/limit setting: evaluation of restrictions set by parents to limit unhealhty children’s behaviors;
  • Reinforcement : assesment of the use of compliments when children adopt healthy behaviors.
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