I was recently reading a facebook discussion that began when someone complained about relatively skinny people who call themselves fat. “Stop calling yourself fat if you wear a size 4. That’s not fat, so stop it.” The discussion when on, mostly about who has a claim to the ‘fat’ title, but sometimes it touched on important issues of self-perception and cultural relativity. What may be overweight for you, may be totally acceptable and even attractive to someone else.

But where do these differences come from? Are they simply a reflection of our parents own views of food, and eating practices? Do they come from our more general cultural environment, either through media, peers, or even how our culture affects our parents and therefore ourselves?

I know you need a dozen studies to address all these issues, but a recent study published by the American Dietetic Association help us move this conversation forward. In the study, a multinational team of researchers from France and the USA, examined the feeding practices of American and French parents. Specifically, they wanted to explore whether a number of factors that have been associated with individual variations in parent-to-child feeding practices differ between the American and the French parents. This would allow us to examine what cultural vs. individual factors are associated with such practices.

The study included 72 French children (age 4 to 7) and their parents, as well as 68 American children (age 4 to 7) and their parents.  The researchers obtained the body weight and BMI of the parents, and the body weight and height of the children.

The parents completed a measure of eating behaviors:

  • restrained eating;
  • uncontrolled eating; and
  • emotional eating)

a measure of feeding practices:

  • monitoring child’s food;
  • using food as a reward;
  • child control over feeding;
  • teaching about nutrition;
  • encouraging balance an variety;
  • restricting child food intake for weight reasons;
  • restricting child food intake for health reasons; and
  • modeling healthy eating habits.

Finally, the parents completed a perception of child body task, in which they were shown 7 silhouettes of children and were asked to select the figure that best resembles the child’s current weight, and to select the figure that resembles the shape they would like for their child. This allowed the researchers to calculate whether the parents thought their kids were thinner or heavier than what they desired.

The Results:

Basic USA – France Comparisons.

  1. Contrary to what some may have been expecting, there was no difference in the BMI between the French and the American children. Both groups had a BMI in the 16 range (skinny for adult norms but normative for children).
  2. The parents differed in their BMI with the American having a significantly higher BMI than the French parents (25.6 vs. 22.6).
  3. Regarding parental practices:
    • The french parents were more likely to monitor the childs’ eating and also more likely to use food restriction for weight control.
    • In contrast, the American parents were more likely to use emotional eating, use food as a reward, allow for child control, and teach about nutrition.
  4. Also surprising to me, the French parents were more likely than the Americans to report that they wanted their children to be thinner.

Predictors of parental behaviors:

  1. A desire for the child to be thinner was related to higher monitoring and higher restriction of feeding, and this phenomenon appears to be stronger in France.
  2. Parental concerns that their kids may be overweight (not simply a desire for the child to be thinner) was associated with food restriction for weight and health reasons in both countries.
  3. The parents’ own food restriction was associated with restriction on the child’s food.

In sum, the US kids were not heavier than the french kids even though their parents were. This is very encouraging as it implies that weight differences do not begin to show until later, allowing for the possibility of implementing effective intervention programs to prevent obesity at the elementary and middle school level. It’s interesting that french parents were more likely than the American parents to report that they wanted their kids to be thinner. I wonder if this plays a role in future weight. For example, it may be that this weight consciousness among french parents may help prevent obesity as the kids enter adolescence and young adulthood.

This also raises another much more complex issue… how do we balance the line between our need as a society to prevent obesity and related negative health outcomes, with the equally important need to prevent eating disorders, body image distortions, and to promote body acceptance of healthy but not necessarily ‘skinny’ body types?

Finally, I should address one caveat. The two samples differed significantly in parental education. 43% of the french parents had a graduate degree or more, that compared to only 18% of US parents. However, 68% of the US sample reported a college degree while only 33% of the French sample reported one. I think this simply reflects educational differences between the US and Europe about what it means to have a college vs. a graduate degree.

The reference: de Lauzon-Guillain, B., Musher-Eizenman, D., Leporc, E., Holub, S., & Charles, M. (2009). Parental Feeding Practices in the United States and in France: Relationships with Child’s Characteristics and Parent’s Eating Behavior Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109 (6), 1064-1069 DOI: 10.1016/j.jada.2009.03.008ResearchBlogging.org

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2 Responses to France vs. USA: Fat babies, french fries, and what parents do about it.

  1. Nan says:

    I’d be curious about the emotional eating aspect, i.e., using food as a reward, because intuitively that strikes me as setting people up to reward themselves later in life with Hagen Daz or french fries or to otherwise develop an unhealthy relationship with food.

  2. Elyse says:

    I think that we need to explore what “variety” these kids were eating as well. The problem with this study is that it’s assuming that the primary source of weight gain is how much one eats, not WHAT one eats or HOW one eats. Certain foods and patterns of eating have been known to still raise BMI while the size may still seem okay. As a matter of fact, eating less can also mess with a child’s metabolism.

    I have a link to a video I’ve seen for one example. I don’t know if you’ve seen this:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBnniua6-oM

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