Eat Beat

Daughter See, Daughter Do

by Althea Zanecosky

Mothers pass down traits of body shape, hair and eye color to their daughters, but they also influence their daughters’ eating habits, physical activity, dieting behavior and body image more than they may realize.

Mothers model both negative and positive health behaviors, often unintentionally, which impressionable daughters learn through the “daughter see, daughter do” phenomenon.

What does the science say about the link between mothers, daughters, dieting, and health?

Food Preference
Children’s food preferences are more strongly linked with the mother than the father, with the strongest association between mothers and daughters. Studies published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association have found that mothers’ own food choices may be more influential than any other attempt to control their daughters’ food intake.

Research has also found that mothers who are preoccupied with weight and dieting and who try to influence their daughters’ eating habits may actually cause the opposite desired effect by placing their daughters at risk for becoming overly concerned with weight and becoming a constant dieter.

Several studies have established that a mother’s decision to eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and to drink milk more often is likely to influence her daughter’s choices.

Also significant in shaping a daughter’s eating habits is creating a family environment that encourages physical activity. Research suggests that both mothers and fathers are models for physical activity. The benefits of exercise for developing girls include healthy weight, positive body image and enhanced bone health.

Leading by example is not the only way a parent can influence a daughter’s physical activity. Some parents might not actually play soccer, but they can still be a positive role model by driving their daughter to ath-letic practices, cheering for her from the sidelines or volunteering to coach.

What’s a Mom To Do?
How can moms help their daughters develop a healthy relationship with food? Research consistently shows that “doing” instead of “telling” is the best strategy. If Mom runs out of the house with a diet soda for breakfast, it is likely that her daughter will do the same. Here are ways to help a daughter build good eating habits:

• Refrain from making negative comments about food, your body or your child’s body.

• Eat foods and drink beverages that you want your children to consume. Mothers who snack on fruit and drink milk at meals are more likely to have daughters do so too.

• Make every effort to have family meals at home, meals full of enjoyment and free of criticism and at which parents serve as role models.

• Avoid pressure or restrictive feeding practices at mealtime.

Foster positive body image and high self-esteem in daughters by complimenting qualities other than appearance.

• Exercise together and exercise independently to serve as active role models.

Althea Zanecosky is a Philadelphia registered dietitian and national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.