Home food environments heavily impact children’s diet, study finds

August 18, 2015

It is well documented that low socioeconomic status (SES) is associated with lower consumption of healthy foods, and that such differences in consumption patterns are influenced by neighborhood food environments.

Researchers know less about the role that SES differences in the home food environment play in consumption patterns. Recently, a research team examined data collected on fourth-grade children in Texas to determine to what extent the availability of food at home, as well as food-related social factors, have an impact on healthy versus unhealthy diets.

Dr. Leslie Lytle

Dr. Leslie A. Lytle

An article on the findings, titled “Socioeconomic inequalities in children’s diet: the role of the home food environment,” was published online July 27 by the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.

“This research suggests that the social environment around the family meal as well as foods that are available at the meal transcend the importance of the family’s overall socioeconomic status in determining the quality of children’s diets,” said Leslie A. Lytle, PhD, who is a study co-author.

Lytle is a professor of health behavior and nutrition, as well as chair of the Department of Health Behavior, at the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health.

The researchers used parental education levels as an indicator of SES and examined the effect of SES, as well as aspects of children’s home food environments and their neighborhood environments, on the quality of the children’s diets.

The team found that there were small but significant differences in children’s diet quality across parental education levels, but these were reduced to insignificance once the home food environment and the neighborhood environment were taken into account.

The home food environment includes social elements, such as mealtime structure, as well as physical attributes like portion sizes served. These factors were found to have a stronger association with the consumption of healthy versus unhealthy foods than parents’ education levels.

Neighborhood poverty has a consistently negative effect on children’s diets, and neighborhood cultural factors also impact the structuring of home food environments.

In this study, however, there was no association between parent’s perceived access to healthy foods in their neighborhoods and the quality of children’s diet. This suggests that the neighborhood influence reflects other cultural and economic factors, beyond access issues, that impact diet.

The overall study findings suggest that parent can modify behaviors at home to substantially improve their children’s eating habits. Possible changes include making available healthy foods, restricting unhealthy foods, turning off the television during mealtime and avoiding food from restaurants.

Lytle explains that these findings are important because they provide evidence for an actionable intervention approach for lower SES families.

“We should not assume, just because population groups are at a lower SES level, that there is little we can do to improve the quality of the diet consumed at home,” Lytle said. “This research suggests that families who make some changes in the mealtime environment of their homes and work toward offering more healthful food options at home can improve the quality of their children’s diets.”

Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or dpesci@unc.edu

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