A new study from the University of Glasgow that analyses information from over 2000 11 year old children and their parents (in 1994-5) reveals no evidence that number of parents in the household or family meals are associated with children’s diets, while maternal employment is associated with better diets.
The children involved in the study were part of the Medical Research Council’s West of Scotland 11 to 16 Study, a study of health and lifestyles, which has followed them since age 11.
Information from the children was used to categorise them on the basis of ‘healthy eating’ (based on the balance of high fat compared with high fibre food items in their diets) and ‘unhealthy snacking’ (based on the consumption of sweets or chocolate, biscuits or cake, crisps and fizzy drinks). Parents provided information on the family and household, the mother’s qualifications and whether or not she was working.
Both ‘less healthy eating’ and ‘unhealthy snacking’ were more likely among:
- boys – 60% of boys compared with 53% of girls were classified as ‘less healthy eaters’
- children living in more deprived areas - 45% of those from ‘least’, 57% from ‘mid’ and 65% from ‘most’ deprived areas were classified as ‘less healthy eaters’
- children whose mothers had fewer qualifications - 64% of children whose mothers had no qualifications, 54% of those whose mothers had school or non-advanced qualifications and 41% of those whose mothers had advanced qualifications were classified as ‘less healthy eaters’
‘Less healthy eating’ was also more likely among those whose mothers were full-time home-makers (63% of these children were classified as ‘less healthy’ eaters) than those whose mothers worked either part-time (52% ‘less healthy eaters’) or full-time (55% ‘less healthy eaters’). The difference in respect of mothers who worked full-time could be accounted for by the fact that they tended to live in less deprived areas and have more qualifications (both of which were associated with better diets). However lower rates of ‘less healthy eating’ among children whose mothers worked part-time could not be accounted for in this way.
There was no link between maternal work and ‘unhealthy snacking’. The research challenges the stereotype of working mothers who regularly dish out ready made meals, to reveal that children of parents who work may be fed more healthily.
Less healthy eating was reduced amongst mothers who worked part-time, full-time, or were unemployed, sick or disabled.
Neither ‘less healthy eating’ nor ‘unhealthy snacking’ were related to whether or not the family ate meals together on a daily basis or to family structure (child living with both birth parents, a step- or a lone parent).
Dr Helen Sweeting, from the MRC Social and Public Health Sciences Unit at the University of Glasgow, said: “Most studies tend to find healthier diets among children who eat more meals with their families, so our finding of no relationship is surprising. Our study, which is one of very few to look at maternal employment and children’s diets, turns on its head the stereotype of working mothers dishing out ready-made less healthy meals and suggests that children of working mothers might be fed more healthily. But the factors which had the strongest relationships with poorer diet were living in a deprived area and having a mother with fewer qualifications.”