A loving, functional family is strongly linked to children’s healthy dietary habits, according to new findings by the East London Family (ELF) study and Queen Mary University of London.
The researchers found that children from more functional families were 67 percent less likely to consume more than four intakes of sugary foods and drinks a day, compared with children from less functional families.
The ELF study is a major two generation family study involving more than 50 researchers. It is believed to be the first study which demonstrates that high sugar consumption is related to poor family functioning.
The findings showed that living in a functional family was more relevant to healthy eating than other factors commonly linked to a healthy family diet, such as high family income and parental education. In fact, effective family functioning led to a healthy diet even among those with lower education, living in a deprived area, and experiencing financial challenges.
“We live in a very materialistic world but material resources alone cannot fulfill us. We also need to meet our psychological needs. A functional family is a major source of pleasure in life, providing comfort and reward.
“In contrast, dysfunctional families are a major source of frustration and stress — and this can lead to high sugar consumption in the search for the ‘feel-good’ effect,” says study leader Professor Wagner Marcenes.
“A significant number of children whose mothers had a lower level of qualification but whose family functioning was effective were more likely to consume less than four intakes of sugary foods compared with their counterparts whose family functioning was impaired,” says Marcenes.
“Effective family functioning is a safeguard against the well-known negative impact of lower levels of education in relation to sugar consumption.”
Effective family functioning is defined as a family which is able to manage daily life and resolve problems in the context of warm and effective family interactions, through clear communication, well-defined roles, and flexible behavior control.
For the study, the researchers observed 1,174 children, ages three and four, who were living in several different types of family units.
“Our research adopted a broad definition of ‘family’ and we included single parents, and those who are divorced, co-habiting, and same sex family types,” says Marcenes.
The findings have major implications for population health. Eating too much sugar is linked to a long list of negative health effects, including diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and tooth decay.
“Public health needs to move beyond the naïve belief that health education based on risk awareness raising programs alone will lead to behavioral change across the population. If this were the case, doctors and nurses would not smoke, drink above the limit, and eat sweets,” says Marcenes.
“It is crucial to understand why we crave for sugar and to identify factors that help people to deal with sugar craving. We need to focus on the wider determinants of health behavior and lifestyle, such as socio-psychological factors.”
The findings are published in the Journal of Caries Research.