Study: Saturated Fats an All in the Family Affair

Strawberry ice cream: a delicious, but fattening, treat. (Image credit: AP Photo / Carolyn Kaster)

Adults with kids in the home eat more saturated fat--the equivalent of about one frozen pepperoni pizza each week--than do adults who don't live with children, scientists report.

"This study really points out that we need to focus on the family as a whole, that the entire family needs to eat healthier, the parents and the children," said lead researcher Helena Laroche of the University of Iowa Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine.

While it doesn't prove the presence of children causes adults to eat more fat, the research is novel in that most past studies of family diets have examined how parents influence children's eating habits and not the inverse situation.

The study also found that adults with children dined on more "convenience foods," including cheese, ice cream, cakes and cookies, beef, pizza and salty snacks.

Family fodder

The scientists analyzed information from the federal government's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 1991 and 1994.

They looked at answers from 6,600 adults aged 17 to 65, about half of whom lived with children and half without children under 17 years old. About half of the participants were male and half female, with an average age of 38 years old.

In the survey, trained nutritionists asked detailed questions about what the individuals and family members had eaten in the previous 24 hours and how often they ate certain foods, such as snack items and high-fat foods.

Adults living in households with children ate an additional 4.9 grams of fat daily, including 1.7 grams of saturated fat, than adults living without children. The about two grams of daily saturated fat is significant, Laroche said, because it has been linked to an increase in the type of cholesterol that leads to a build-up of fat in blood vessels.

Who's in charge?

Past consumer studies have found that parents are more likely to name their child, not themselves, as the family expert for selecting fast food, snacks and new breakfast cereals. One past study showed that 50 percent of parents think meal and grocery choices are influenced by their kids.

Several factors could be to blame for the different menus in households with and without children, but Laroche said additional research is needed to nail down reasons.

"These dietary choices may be due to time pressures, advertising aimed at children that also includes adults, or adults' perception that children will eat only hot dogs or macaroni and cheese. Once these foods are in the house, even if bought for the children, adults appear more likely to eat them," Laroche said.

Recently, Laroche began a study to examine eating habits of adults before and after having children, and also how the age of children changes what adults consume.

At the end of the day, healthy eating is a family affair, and it's important "to focus on keeping healthier food in the home for everybody, to focus on healthy snacks--as opposed to your fatty potato chips, have lower-fat pretzels or cut-up carrots and fruit and things for both the adults and the child to snack on," Laroche told LiveScience.

"And if you need to eat convenience foods because you're pressed for time, really try and limit the number of times you eat out."

The research will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine.

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.