(dailyRx News) Planning a family? Thinking you might finally start eating healthier because a little one is watching your dietary habits? Parenthood may not change those habits as much as you'd like.
A long-term study looking at the impact of having children on the eating habits of their parents found that starting a family does not necessarily lead mom and dad to eat healthier diets.
Helena Laroche, MD, of the University of Iowa and the Iowa City VA Medical Center, and colleagues wanted to know whether the popular idea that parents may decide to eat better to set examples for their children might actually have any evidence to back it up.
Researchers analyzed the diets of 2,563 adults participating in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Youth Adults (CARDIA) study, which is occurring at multiple facilities to help researchers understand risk factors for heart disease in young adults.
Laroche's team looked at the percentage of saturated fat and calories that the childless young adults consumed in 1985-1986, as well as how many daily servings of fruits and vegetables they ate, how many sugar-sweetened drinks they drank and how often they ate fast food.
The team then analyzed the same dietary factors seven years later, in 1992-1993. Although both those who did and did not have children in the intervening time period were eating less saturated fat, the childless adults had a bigger drop in fat intake.
Parents were eating 1.6 percent less saturated fat while non-parents were eating 2.1 percent less.
As far as calorie consumption, fruit and vegetable intake, sugar-sweetened beverages and happy meals, the researchers found no significant difference between those who had kids and those who did not.
Both parents and non-parents were eating more fruits and vegetables at the second assessment of their diets, but this trend didn't appear to necessarily be swayed by the presence of children.
"Perhaps the motivation children provide to eat more fruits and vegetables balances out time factors, keeping parents in line with non-parents in increasing their intake," Dr. Laroche suggested.
"Children may have the potential to motivate this change, but perhaps in the US parents need more financial support and education, such as provided in other countries, to increase their fruit and vegetable intake further than they have," Dr. Laroche said.
The researchers took into account demographic factors, including race, gender, age and weight of the adults, but various calculations still revealed no effects on diet from having kids.
Because the study's data is now almost twenty years old, it's possible that cultural changes since 1993 may reveal a different picture for today's families. Because the dietary information was based on the participants' recall, it also may not be completely reliable.
However, according to registered and licensed dietitian Angela Lemond, who specializes in working with children and families but was not associated with this study, the challenges families face in eating healthy meals are as present as ever. Lemond said she sees parents all the time who would benefit from improving their eating patterns.
"The responsibilities that parents have in raising children often times distract them from concentrating on their own healthy eating habits," Lemond said. "Lack of time and hectic family schedules that include sports and after school activities do influence eating patterns."
But parents can make the conscious decision to use starting a family as an ideal time to make those important changes. It just takes planning and will power - and perhaps a little foresight in realizing how valuable that change could be for children.
"We must remember as parents to remain committed in keeping ourselves healthy so we can be good role models to our children," Lemond said. "I always say children will do what you do - not just what you tell them to do."
Study author Dr. Laroche said additional study into the eating behaviors of parents would be worthwhile, as would additional education on nutrition for expectant parents.
"The transition to parenthood may be a teachable moment for dietitians and health practitioners to educate adults not only on child nutrition or nutrition for pregnancy, but on changing diet patterns for the whole family as well," Dr. Laroche said.
The study appeared online April 30 in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
The research was funded primarily by a grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute along with support from several universities and the Kaiser Foundation Research Institute. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.