How do parents influence the eating behavior of their child?

IFB experts investigate how eating habits of the parents influence their child's weight in a large-scale study.

Photo: istockphoto

A Leipzig study  invites families to eat for science in order to find possible relations between parental behavior and the body weight of children. Is overweight simply inherited since "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree"? Or are there other factors than genes playing a role?

Overweight and adiposity (obesity) are a problem in Germany that needs to be taken seriously. In particular, the number of oberweight children has increased drastically over the last few years. The affected children can suffer from serious comorbidities such as type II diabetes and high blood pressure even at an early age. Add to that there are mocking and social isolation. Therefore, findings about eating behavior and nutrition are important in order to help the affected families in a more targeted way.

In order to systematically investigate eating behavior and diet, a large-scale parent-child-study was started mid-2010 at the Integrated Research and Treatment Center (IFB) AdiposityDiseases. Its aim is to decode risk and protective factors to be able to better counsel parents. Many data could already be collected thanks to the participating families; now their detailed evaluation follows. 106 girls and 102 boys between the ages of six months and four years participate in the study at the IFB. They found their way to the IFB together with their mother or their father. Extensive questionnaires were filled out and a meal was taken together. 

More than two thirds of Leipzig's children were normalweight at the time of the data collection. One percent was underweight, 14 percent were fighting with overweight and seven percent of the kids even were obese. The scientists wanted to know among other things how the parents' behavior at the dinner table during shared meals or during feeding the children influences the child's weight.

The psychologist Dr. Verena Wendt explains the latest findings: "There are hints that over-controlling occurence of the parents might disturb the infantile self control during meals and therefore might benefit uncontrolled eating." That in turn might lead to overweight later on. Overly controlling behavior might for example be that parents insist too much on a specific order of food, pressure the children to finish their food or lack a sensitivity for their child's signals. "In how far those relations can be supported by the recorded videos of meals in Leipzig families however cannot be determined before all behavior observations have been thouroughly evaluated," explains the scientist. "Since we are allowed to accompany the families over a period of three years we will be able to also grasp long-term changes, especially of the weight. We are very impressed how many kindergardens and parents also support our study over this long period," Dr. Wendt tells us excitedly.

The relationship of children's weight and breast feeding has been investigated years ago already. It is regarded a fact that a breast fed child has a lower risk of becoming overweight. Until the ninth month of their lives the risk decreases by four percent every month they are breast fed. It was therefore interesting to know how many children in Leipzig have been breast fed for how long. Dr. Wendt who has been heading the parent-child study for 16 months therefore is happy to find that the participating mothers have been breast feeding until the eighth month on average. And they do this even though some of the mothers stated that they have been significantly more stressed with the newcomer. Their motivation to breast feed their child has not been lowered by that.

Keywords: IFB-reserach, causes of obesity, children & youths