We’ve all heard the saying that children learn by example, but did you ever wonder just how much parents influence their kids’ health? A recent study published in the journal Eating Behaviors sought to answer this question and shed light on the role parents play in shaping their children’s health-related behaviors. The findings emphasizes that both mothers and fathers can positively impact their children’s physical activity and dietary habits.

In the age-old debate of nature versus nurture, it turns out that both parents play pivotal roles in shaping their children’s health behaviors, according to a recent study. This study, conducted by a team of researchers, delves into how parental physical activity and dietary habits can significantly impact those of their offspring.

The motivation behind this research stemmed from a desire to understand the extent to which early-life conditions and family dynamics influence a child’s development and health as they grow older. With rising concerns about childhood obesity and related health issues, the researchers sought to explore the intricate relationship between parents and their children’s physical activity and dietary choices.

“I am generally interested in the role of social context and environment in the development of children and adolescents,” said study author Helle Larsen, an associate professor of developmental psychology, at the University of Amsterdam.

“We know that parents play a crucial role in relation to eating habits and physical activity, and in shaping their children’s health behaviors. Parents can influence their children’s behavior through modelling so they can model both healthy and unhealthy behaviors. If we can better understand this influence, we can help develop effective strategies for promoting better health outcomes in children.”

The researchers drew their data from the ABCD (Amsterdam Born Children and their Development) study, a population-based cohort study launched in Amsterdam in 2003. This long-term project aimed to uncover how early-life conditions could explain a child’s later development and overall health. In 2015 and 2016, the team invited families still participating in the study, with children aged 11 to 12, to complete questionnaires.

The current study focused on data from 2,467 parent-child pairs who had provided information on physical activity, diet quality, and parental involvement in child care. Physical activity was assessed by asking parents how many minutes they engaged in sports each week, while children were asked about the type and amount of sports they participated in, excluding activities like walking or cycling to school. A weekly metabolic equivalents (METs) score was then calculated for children.

Diet quality was assessed by examining the dietary intake of four food groups: fruits, vegetables, snacks, and sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs). Each food group’s daily intake was divided into quartiles, and the Diet Quality Score (DQS) was calculated based on these scores, ranging from 4 (unhealthiest) to 16 (healthiest).

Parental child care involvement was measured using a questionnaire that asked about various responsibilities related to daily activities, such as homework help and taking children to sports activities. The responses were rated on a 5-point scale, reflecting different levels of involvement.

The researchers also controlled for demographic and socioeconomic factors, such as age, body mass index (BMI), ethnicity, educational level, smoking habits, employment status, family financial status, and the number of siblings in the household.

The study demonstrated that both mothers and fathers have a significant impact on their children’s physical activity levels. Mothers who engaged in regular physical activity were more likely to have children who did the same. Fathers also influenced their children’s activity levels, especially when they were actively involved in daily child care.

The research indicated that parental dietary habits, particularly those of mothers, significantly influenced their children’s dietary choices. Mothers with healthier eating habits tended to have children who followed suit. Fathers also played a role, although the influence was more pronounced for father-son pairs.

The findings indicate “that both parents (fathers and mothers) matters when shaping healthy eating and activity behaviors,” Larsen told PsyPost. But “perhaps parents play a different role for daughters and sons, respectively.”

While this study offers valuable insights into the parent-child dynamic regarding health behaviors, it’s important to acknowledge its limitations. The data collected relied on self-reports, which may introduce some inaccuracies due to imprecise measurement and possible biases. In addition, the study population may not fully represent all families, as it skewed towards those with high socioeconomic status and of Dutch origin.

“We need to study these patterns over time to get more knowledge on development of healthy eating and activity behaviours longitudinally,” Larsen said. “Also, we need to examine different groups of socioeconomic position to increase generalizability of the findings.”

Nevertheless, the findings underscores the significant role parents play in influencing their children’s physical activity and dietary habits. The study emphasizes the importance of shared responsibility and engagement in parenting to promote healthy behaviors in children.

The study, “Associations between parental and pre-adolescents’ physical activity and diet quality: The role of parental child care involvement and child’s sex“, was authored by Helle Larsen, Roel C.J. Hermans, Sara Kayabal, Carry M. Renders, and Tanja G.M. Vrijkotte.