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Family food rules can significantly improve teens’ independent food choices

Household guidelines and rules related to food help teenagers eat healthier away from home, new Stanford research suggests.

What do teenagers do when their parents aren’t supervising their food choices? Do they eat healthy lunches, or return home with junk food wrappers stuffed in the dark recesses of their backpacks and a smear of cheese puff-orange on their pants?

Until recently parents (and researchers) weren’t so sure. Now a new Stanford study in the Journal of Adolescent Health suggests that teens follow their parents' rules about food and nutrition even when their parents aren't around.

In the study, which was covered in a Stanford press release, graduate students Jennifer Wang and Priya Fielding-Singh surveyed 1,246 students from a diverse San Francisco Bay Area high school. They asked them questions about their eating habits, their knowledge of nutrition, and whether or not their parents had guidelines about food and nutrition at home.

The students did know which foods were healthy, Fielding-Singh said, adding:

We adults tend to underestimate how cognizant teenagers are of the healthiness of what they are consuming.

But did the students put this knowledge into practice when their parents weren’t around? Yes!

The students were allowed to pick two of 10 snacks (that ranged from unhealthy to healthy) as part of an award raffle — the catch was that neither the students nor their teachers knew the snack raffle was a controlled experiment.

The researchers found that teens who reported having at least one health-oriented food rule at home had significantly higher odds of choosing a healthier snack, even if they thought their parents would not know about their choice. Moreover, these same students were also more likely to feel good about a healthy food choice, and bad about an unhealthy one.

“The food rules parents have at home can continue to shape their teens’ behaviors, even when parents are not actively supervising,” Wang said. These results suggest that what parents teach their kids about nutrition and eating healthy extends far beyond their own front door.

Photo by epicantus

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