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Parental Pressure on Kids to Eat May Lead to Obesity, Study Claims

Update Date: Apr 22, 2013 01:03 PM EDT

Children are often told to finish their portions at the dinner table, especially if they want a post-meal snack. But how do these attitudes toward food affect a child's weight?

Researchers at the University of Minnesota found that children were more likely to be overweight or obese if their parents commonly restricted foods. While children who were pressured to finish their meals were largely of normal weight, this attitude had adverse affects on those children's eating habits as they grew older, according to the study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics.

The study combined data from two separate research efforts. The first was EAT 2010 (Eating and Activity in Teens), which studied approximately 2,800 middle and high school students from public schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn. The participants were asked to respond to survey questionnaires in order to observe their dietary intake and weight status. The data was then combined with the findings from Project F-EAT (Families and Eating and Activity Among Teens), which was studied factors within the family environment on weight in adolescents.

The combined data gave researchers a better understanding of how parents' approach to food and feeding is related to adolescents' weight.

 "We found that between 50 and 60 percent of parents from our sample reported requiring that their child eat all of the food on their plate at a meal," said researcher Katie Loth, the study's lead author. "Further, we found that between 30-40 percent of parents from within our sample reported encouraging their child to continue eating even after their child stated that they were full.

"While these pressure-to-eat behaviors were more frequent among parents of non-overweight adolescents, they were still endorsed quite frequently by parents of overweight and obese adolescents, indicating that many parents endorse these behaviors regardless of their child's current weight status," she said.

The studies also suggested that fathers were more likely than mothers to pressure their children to eat, and adolescent boys were pressured more than adolescent girls.

"Parental pressure to eat can be detrimental to children because it takes away from a child's ability to respond naturally to their own hunger," said Loth. "Instead, [it] encourages them to respond to cues in their environment which can lead to unhealthy weight gain over time."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity now affects 17% of all children and adolescents in the United States - triple the rate from just a generation ago.

The data also showed that restricting food from kids was a common practice of either parent, in both boys and girls, according to CNN Health.

"Research has shown that when a parent places a restriction on a particular food item (i.e. no treats) that a child becomes more interested in consuming that food item and will often overeat that food when given the opportunity," Loth continued. "Instead, parents should be encouraged to allow their children to eat all foods in moderation."

Study authors suggest parents should pay attention to their child's weight and make an effort to better understand good eating practices, rather than worrying whether or not their kids have finished their food or have the occasional cookie.

Practices like eating regular family meals, having nutritious snacks at home and encouraging young people to make better food choices are good ways to fight food problems, Loth said.

And most importantly, "parents should also work hard to model healthy eating and a healthy relationship with food to their child" by eating a well-balanced diet, Loth said.

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