Are Your Kids Making You Eat More?

According to a recent study in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, adults living with children under the age of 17 eat more fat, and saturated fat, than adults who don’t live with children. In fact, according to the study, based on findings from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, adults living with children consume as much as an additional 4.9 grams of fat (including 1.7 grams of saturated fat) daily — adding up to the equivalent of almost an entire individual frozen pepperoni pizza.

The study found that having children in the house often meant that parents found themselves eating more saturated fats in the form of cheese, ice cream, salty snacks, cakes, cookies and preserved meats — with busy, time-pressed parents tending to rely on “convenience” foods not only for their busy children, but for themselves, as well.

There are many reasons that may be accounting for all this: parents giving in to the wants of their children, thereby allowing them access to a plethora of junk food; the erroneous belief of many parents that children require a high fat diet; and the harried lifestyle that requires quick, easy meals. All of these contribute to having high-fat foods in the house — and to making the temptation to swing through the drive-through lane for a quick meal too difficult to resist for many parents today.

Quick, convenient and tasty are the types of foods children like to eat and may also make life a little easier for the overworked parents. The downside to this is the increase in nutritionally deficient, calorie-laden foods being ingested by the child and as well as the parent. The way to avoid this problem is by planning meals ahead of time. Take time during the weekend to buy healthy foods for meals and snacks during the week. Write down a food plan for the week so you are not stuck hurrying to feed your children at 6pm after a long day at work.

Parents may also be mistaken in their understanding of the need for fat in a child’s diet. During the first two years of life, children need a higher intake of fat for brain development, but after the age of 2, this is not so. The increase in fat intake, especially in the form of whole milk products (cheese, ice cream) may represent parents’ belief that children still require high-saturated-fat foods. Avoid all whole-fat milk products in children over 2. Use low-fat cheese, skim milk and low-fat yogurts. Stick with foods that are high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats — like avocados, nuts, seeds and healthy oils (olive, canola).

Another pitfall is allowing a child to pick out foods while shopping. It is difficult to ensure a healthy eating pattern for children in a society that advertises unhealthy processed foods to children everyday. The supermarket shelves are filled with unhealthy foods but only the determined parent can say no to the nagging child who is insisting on buying them. Most of us want to please our children and make them happy, so we give in to their wants. A good way to avoid this is by writing down a shopping list before you go to the supermarket — and sticking to it. Make a plan that you will not deviate from. If it is possible, do not take young children food shopping. This will help ensure that you do not come home with a basket full of high-saturated-fat junk foods.

Remember, being a role model for your child is the most important job you will ever have as a parent — and this is especially true for food choices. Children are much more likely to follow your lead if you set the example of resisting junk/convenience foods. Just talking about proper foods and the importance of eating healthfully isn’t enough; parents have to be engaged in a healthy lifestyle, as well. Every day our children are bombarded with ads for very unhealthy foods; they are then served these foods in school, at parties, at the homes of friends, in restaurants and even in our own homes. These foods have caused an alarming increase in overweight children and the development of poor eating habits. The rise in childhood obesity levels in our country is alarming.

I strongly believe that the real key to solving the problem lies in the power of the family. Together, parents and children need to learn how to deal with the plethora of non-nutritious foods advertised at every turn and prominently displayed in stores — as well as the constant lure of videogames and computers that promote a less active lifestyle. Although it might be difficult at times for parents with children at home to avoid the common trap of eating less nutritious, on-the-go (and many times high-fat and high-calorie) foods, making smarter, healthier food choices for your whole family is not only crucial for your child’s health … but critical for you, as well.

MARY ELLEN RENNA, M.D. is a Woodbury, NY-based pediatrician, physician nutrition specialist, and author of the book “Growing Up Healthy the Next Generation Way: Add Years to Your Child’s Life and Life to Your Child’s Years” (SelectBooks, February 2007). For more information about Dr. Renna, visit