March 25, 2014
2 min read

Childhood eating habits influenced by peers

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Children’s eating habits and attitudes toward food are influenced by their social peer networks, and attitudes can be reinforced by those in the peer groups, according to data from the Pathways to Health trial.

Researchers at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Research and Colorado State University used data from the school-based, randomized Pathways to Health study, an ongoing longitudinal, multicomponent study that included a childhood obesity prevention program, to determine whether peer influence moderated obesity or had any effects on obesity-related behavior.

Based on substance use prevention programs, the intervention program targeted impulse control, emotional regulation, cognition and behavior to promote physical activity and healthy eating habits, according to researchers.

Peer influence in the social networks of a cohort of 557 students in fifth and sixth grades in 24 Southern California schools was measured. Of the cohort, 343 students (62%) were placed in the intervention program and 214 (38%) were designated controls. The control group had a higher proportion of students receiving free or discounted student lunches (P<.05) and exhibited higher levels of physical activity (P<.05), but no other significant differences were observed between the two groups.

Students completed a 143-item survey with questions designed to assess food intake, physical activity, sedentary behavior and peer networks. Inquiry about fruit and vegetable intake included questions such as, “How often did you eat any fruit, fresh or canned?” Questions about physical activity asked students to self-report how often they were very active in certain situations or whether they were involved in sports. Other questions were posed based on sedentary activity, such as amount of time spent watching television or playing video games. BMI was calculated for each student based on CDC guidelines.

Students were asked to provide information about their social networks by identifying best friends in their respective classrooms. Calculations were made regarding peer exposure using a set of factors, including self-reported data. Researchers examined joint associations of related peer behaviors together, including physical activity with sedentary behavior, and the intake of fruits and vegetables with high-calorie, low-nutrient foods. Children in the intervention group were observed, and healthy or unhealthy behaviors were recorded.

Researchers found that peer exposure was positively associated with personal behavior, and the effect of the intervention program was moderated by the level of fruit and vegetable intake of peers (P<.01), as well as sedentary behavior (P<.05) and high-calorie, low-nutrient food consumption (P<.05).

“This article sought to fill an important gap in childhood obesity literature by identifying that the influence of children’s social networks can moderate the effectiveness of a childhood obesity program. Consistent with prior research, our finding suggested that the healthful and unhealthful behaviors can be reinforced by peer influence,” researchers wrote.


Disclosure: The researchers report no relevant financial disclosures.