How to Be Healthy When Your Family Isn’t

5 05 2017

College students may be able to get advice from a registered dietitian within campus student health services. (GETTY IMAGES)

You can’t ask a 7-year-old to do the grocery shopping for a family.

Similarly, children’s “choice” of what they eat is largely made for them by parents – based on what options are brought into the home. Not surprisingly, research finds that children’s eating habits – the amount of fruits and veggies they eat, for example – are greatly influenced by parents’ own dietary proclivities. If parents care about eating well, their kids are more likely to eat well.

Likewise, whether parents prioritize physical activity – and if they’re active with their children – tends to be positively associated with children’s own activity levels. Parents’ caring about physical activity, higher exercise levels and encouragement of physical activity in kids is also linked to lower rates of obesity in kids. In short, parents’ and kids’ activity levels are closely aligned. “They’re very strongly correlated,” says Paul Veugelers, a professor of epidemiology in the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health and director of the university’s Population Health Intervention Research Unit, who has studied parents’ influence on kids’ health behaviors. “Parents are the role models for the children.”

Certainly families don’t live in a vacuum. Socioeconomic factors – whether a family grows up in poverty, which is strongly associated with how much education parents have – can have a huge impact, since less education is linked to poorer health choices. (Also, families with fewer resources may have more trouble affording healthy food and may have less access to parks in certain impoverished areas, among other disadvantages). So experts say it’s important to think in terms of environmental influences in the broadest sense, from schools and communities to society as a whole, particularly as an obesity epidemic has expanded the waistlines of kids and adults across the U.S. and in many places around the world.

However, at a most elemental level, the influence of the family on an individual’s well-being and choices remains strong, even as one gets older and leaves the home. “Families are central to how we eat [and] how we live,” says Marina Chaparro, a registered dietitian nutritionist specializing in children and families based in Miami, and a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Really parents shape a lot of our habits and are a key influence in how we grow up in general.”

So when it comes to changing kids’ health habits – like improving how a child eats – it’s always a family affair. “Although individualized kind of treatments can work, when we’re talking about children, really we need to focus on a family-based approach,” Chaparro says. “It’s going to be really, really difficult to see any kind of change, especially behavior change that is long-term when not all the family is aboard.”

But where young kids’ healthy – and unhealthy – habits are largely established for them by their parents, as children reach adolescence, begin to challenge norms at home and grow into young adults who leave the home, there’s opportunity to break from unhealthy family traditions. Of course, even when not living under the same roof, making changesthat run counter to how a person grew up to live well can prove a tall order.

“Change is hard,” says Emily Ozer, a clinical and community psychologist and a professor of community health sciences at UC Berkeley School of Public Health in California. So she recommends starting with small tweaks. For example, for all the talk about diet and exercise, one could easily forget the third pillar of health: sleep. Instead, make a goal to get adequate rest if you’re among the 1 in 3 adults the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates don’t get adequate rest. In addition to the overall mind-body benefits of getting at least seven hours of shut-eye (and some adults need more like eight or nine hours of sleep), being well-rested can reduce the likelihood you’ll eat more to get through the day or to stay up at night, plus boost energy to support physical activity goals.

Trying to break from an unhealthy family tradition, and not sure where to start? Consider seeking guidance from a professional. That could be talking to a trainer at a local gym to develop a workout routine, if you’re out of your element or don’t know how to maximize your sweat equity, or seeing a registered dietitian to develop a healthy eating plan you actually want to follow. For those in college, some campus student health services have registered dietitians on staff who will work with students – including those with diabetesor who wish to lose weight or simply eat better – to develop an eating plan, Chaparro says.

Remember, too, that just as your home environment may have contributed to your eating poorly or spending a lot of time on the couch when you were growing up, if you’re living on your own, you’re likely to have more say in creating an environment that better supports healthy living to reduce the likelihood of slipping back into old, unhealthy habits.

If you have a choice in where you live, you might pick a walkable neighborhood and perhaps even find an area with access to bike paths, Veugelers says, where you could pedal to work rather than driving.


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