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Parental example proves to be all-powerful

By Katherine Vonderhaar

Children as young as two years old pay close attention to the food choices their parents make, according to a recent DMS paper. When preschoolers took a doll grocery shopping as part of a study, they "bought" food items that generally were as healthy—or unhealthy—as their parents' purchases fromreal grocery stores. "Kids start forming their habits at a very young age," says the paper's lead author, Lisa Sutherland, Ph.D.

Grocery store: The researchers did a new analysis of data from a 2005 role-playing study initially conducted to evaluate the attitudes of 120 young children toward alcohol and tobacco. The children, who were between two and six years old, took a Barbie or Ken doll shopping in a miniature grocery store. In addition, their parents filled out questionnaires about their own food shopping habits. (For more on the 2005 alcohol and tobacco analysis, see the article "Barbie 'buys' booze and butts.")

In the recent food-choice analysis, published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, Sutherland and her colleagues classified the 47 food and beverage items in the pretend store as less healthy or more healthy. Those with more added sugars and salt, such as cake and potato chips, were rated as less healthy than products such as fruit and milk.

Junk: "Most nutritionists would have suspected that kids fill their baskets with junk food when given the opportunity," says Sutherland. In fact, about 11% of the children had shopping carts judged "most healthy" by the researchers; they had chosen more than four healthy products for each less-healthy one. About 18%had carts judged "somewhat healthy." And 71% had about equal numbers of moreand less-healthy items; their carts were judged "least healthy."

It turned out that the only predictor of the healthiness of the children's food purchases was their parents' shopping habits. Kids with parents who reported buying healthier foods themselves were more likely to do the same in the pretend store. The finding may seem intuitive, says Sutherland. But "it's the first time we've been able to show with a scientific study that at a very young age, children really mimic their parents' [food choices]."

Effect: Factors such as age, gender, access to television, and parents' education level appeared to have no significant effect on a child's food choices. But, the researchers point out, a larger study might yield different results.

Sutherland, "a firm believer that parents have a huge impact on their children," says parents can use their influence to help their children develop healthy eating habits. For instance, parents can allow

Even two-year-olds pay close attention to their parents' food choices.

their children to select which vegetables to buy for dinner. They should also explain why products such as candy and soda aren't very nutritious.

Yet even Sutherland, the mother of two, buys a popular but lessnutritious cereal every few months. When she does, however, she emphasizes to her children that it's "not an everyday breakfast cereal for us" due to its sugar content.

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