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Food talk key to kids’ healthy diets

by Rosanna Galvin

Dr Parletta says communication styles can be a predictor for unhealthy diets in children.How parents communicate at the dinner table, and not just what’s on the plate, could be one of the secrets to establishing healthy diets for children and adolescents, according to a new cross-sectional study by UniSA researcher Dr Natalie Parletta (pictured below).

Drawing on research by Amber Owen, Dr Jacqueline Peters and Dr Margarita Tsiros from UniSA’s Division of Health Sciences and Dr Leah Brennan from Monash University, the study found that parenting communication styles can be a predictor for unhealthy diets in children and higher BMI in adolescents.

Dr Parletta, who won Early Career STEM Professional (Health and Life Sciences) at last year’s Science Excellence Awards SA, says communication styles, as a cornerstone of effective parenting, are adaptable and could be a potential solution to combat unhealthy dietary patterns in young people.

“What we found was that it is amazingly consistent in young children and in teenagers that permissive parenting and over-reactive, incendiary parenting styles were associated with lower fruit and vegetable consumption and higher consumption of junk foods or higher BMI,” Dr Parletta says.

“Given that communication processes are modifiable, effective parenting and communication could be considered a promising focus point in the early years for interventions aimed at preventing unhealthy child/adolescent diets and obesity.”

The study describes three different parents: the authoritarian parent, who is controlling and directive; the permissive parent, who is lax and undemanding; and the warm, authoritative parent, who encourages choice and autonomy within firm, healthy boundaries.

Dr Natalie Parletta. While it can be challenging to maintain the authoritative parenting approach with children, Dr Parletta says this effective communication style assists in setting up healthy lifestyle choices in later years.

“It’s very easy for parents and children to get trapped in power struggles around food. If they are going to get into power struggles – food is a very common thread,” she says.

“Our study supports suggestions that the authoritative style of parenting has the best outcomes for children’s health. If you apply the authoritative style to food intake, it would mean giving your child a choice between an apple and an orange as opposed to an apple and an ice cream.

“And at the food table, not forcing them to eat and not bribing them – for example, they get ice cream if they eat their broccoli – we know that incentive doesn’t work.

“If you create a positive environment and give your children choices rather than forcing them to eat – put food on the table and they can make those choices for themselves; then that empowers them to make those healthy food choices and additionally develop a preference for those foods.”

With a background in psychology and now based at the Sansom Institute for Health Research, Dr Parletta believes blending psychology with nutrition is a useful tool in understanding what creates healthy lifestyles.

“It’s all about behaviour and what you choose to eat. If we could just teach people that this is what you should eat, then it would be really simple, people would just say, ‘Oh yeah, I want to be healthy, I’ll eat that’,” she says.

“Unfortunately it’s not that easy. That’s why it is so important for parents to use effective communication and parenting styles along with healthy food provision to assist their children to establish healthy eating patterns from the outset.”

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