INFS Health Series: Nutrition for adolescents Part 3: Parental influence on factors affecting eating behavior in adolescents

Aditya Mahajan
Assessment Division,
Institute of Nutrition and Fitness Sciences (INFS)

Key points:
• Understanding adolescent’s eating behavior and habits is important in terms of their health. Nutrition during adolescence has a direct impact on their health at later stages of life.
• The food choices are influenced by environmental, behavioral and cognitive factors. Bandura’s Social Cognitive theory indicates that all these factors are actually interlinked.
• Child’s eating behavior is strongly influenced by family environment.
• Parents who are concerned about the child’s dietary intake may attempt to restrict the certain food items and/or pressurize them to consume healthy food items. Both the techniques are incapable of inducing any positive behavior change.
• Efforts must be directed toward enabling the adolescents to make their independent food choices. Parents must provide positive role modeling with their eating behaviors.
Keywords: Adolescent, eating, behavior, diet, parentq

Eating habits established in the adolescent stage is what carried to the adulthood with a direct consequence on the long-term health. Thus, children’s learning and their dietary habits play a significant role in subsequent food choices, diet quality, and overall health status.
Parents play an influential role in guiding and directing food selection in kids and are, therefore, a major contributing factor in the development of childhood obesity. In the light of that, we examined how parents can create an environment for their children which may foster the development of positive eating behaviors in them.
Factors influencing the food choices in an adolescent:
The food choices in adolescents are influenced by:

Bandura’s social cognitive theory (SCT) is an interpersonal theory that emphasis mutual interactions of person, behavior, and environment. According to this theory, the behavior is influenced by environmental and personal characteristics. Thus, SCT explains how positive nutritional behaviors can be achieved in adolescents by integrating the other variables, such as improving environmental factors and strengthening individual’s knowledge of diet and nutrition.

Influence and role of the parents:

In kids and adolescents, the food habits and preferences are mediated by the parents in following ways:
➢ Parents actively make food choices for the family.
➢ Parents serve as the model for dietary choices.
Now, lack of right knowledge about nutrition in the parents is one of the biggest challenges in the field of adolescent nutrition (and this was the only driving force for INFS to collect and document the data on this topic). There is a lack of availability of enough quality data.
The second risk factor is the limited control of kid’s food choices with adolescent’s increasing independence around food and lifestyle factors. It has been observed adolescents when allowed to freely make food choices, they tend to opt for food of poor nutritional value. Therefore, autonomy is a risk factor for poor nutrition.
Now, once we have identified the major challenges, let’s understand how to inculcate positive eating behaviors in them.
What not to do?
Being overly restrictive: It has been observed that excessive restriction can increase the preference and consumption of the “restricted” food items at the instance of their availability. Over-restriction doesn’t produce the ability to self-evaluate and regulate the diet. Thus, in the long term, this technique fails to produce any positive change in the eating patterns.
Using food as a reward: Pressurising a child to opt for healthy foods, by using bribes orr rewards consisting of otherwise restricted food items, likewise appears to be counter-productive. As per one study, rewarding for consuming healthy food items may actually result in the decreased preference for those foods.
What exactly to do?
Be the change you wish to see: “Do as I do” approach was found to have a stronger effect on adolescent’s relationship with food than “Do what I say” approach. For example, as per one study [4], children’s intake of fruits and vegetables increased after observing adults consuming the same food. Thus, depending on their eating habits, parents can serve as positive or negative role models.
Nutritional independence: Guide and support your child as he/she makes independent food selections

It was found that environmental, cognitive and behavioral factors act together to influence adolescent’s dietary conduct. Kids don’t naturally select the right food. Parents can have a strong influence on the food selection. However, authoritarian style of feeding, by restricting certain food items and pressuring them to eat healthy food, may actually promote negative behavior and may also increase the preference for the unhealthy food options. There is a consistent evidence that shaping the child’s eating behavior, rather than enforcing, has a stronger positive effect on the children’s consumption patterns.

1. Birch, L., Savage, J. S., & Ventura, A. (2007). Influences on the development of children’s eating behaviours: from infancy to adolescence. Canadian journal of dietetic practice and research: a publication of Dietitians of Canada= Revue canadienne de la pratique et de la recherche en dietetique: une publication des Dietetistes du Canada, 68(1), s1.
2. Bandura, A. (2004). Health promotion by social cognitive means. Health education & behavior, 31(2), 143-164.
3. Klesges, R. C., Stein, R. J., Eck, L. H., Isbell, T. R., & Klesges, L. M. (1991). Parental influence on food selection in young children and its relationships to childhood obesity. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 53(4), 859-864.
4. Young, E. M., Fors, S. W., & Hayes, D. M. (2004). Associations between perceived parent behaviors and middle school student fruit and vegetable consumption. Journal of nutrition education and behavior, 36(1), 2-12.
5. Scaglioni, S., Salvioni, M., & Galimberti, C. (2008). Influence of parental attitudes in the development of children eating behavior. British Journal of Nutrition, 99(S1), S22-S25.
6. Neumark-Sztainer, D., Story, M., Perry, C., & Casey, M. A. (1999). Factors influencing food choices of adolescents: findings from focus-group discussions with adolescents. Journal of the American dietetic association, 99(8), 929-937.

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