Flinders University: Parent diet interventions help child eating habits

Parents are the most important ‘agents of change’ for influencing child lifestyle behaviours – so healthy diet interventions aimed at engaging only parents can be more effective than those aimed at both parents and their children, according to researchers from Flinders University, the University of Newcastle and University of Wollongong.

Healthy diet interventions have been shown to be especially important for fruit and vegetable consumption, with research demonstrating that parental modelling, preferences and intake are positively associated with children’s food preference, as well as children’s intake of fruit and vegetables.

To further explore this influence, researchers conducted the ‘Time for Healthy Habits’ translational trial over a 12-week period that recruited more than 450 parents of children aged from 2 to 6 years, offered as a free population-wide service across New South Wales between May 2019 and March 2020, with follow-up contact until March 2021.

The trial involved two remotely delivered (telephone or online) interventions, but while the results showed improved dietary outcomes for both parents and children, is not clear what is the most effective, readily embraced means of providing interventions.

While more parents expressed a preference for the online intervention, this still registered a lower level of engagement – with a completion rate of only 26% versus a telephone completion rate of 33%.

Study results indicate that parents who received the telephone intervention significantly increased their vegetable but not fruit consumption, relative to parents who had received online interventions.

“Because participant engagement remains a barrier for technology-based health interventions, it’s important that future research focuses on better understanding that barriers and enablers to parent engagement with technology-based intervention,” says Flinders University’s Dr Chris Rissel, who was part of the research team. “We need this knowledge to optimise improvements to family lifestyle behaviours.”

The researchers conclude that the effectiveness of two remotely delivered healthy lifestyle interventions (telephone and online) can help increase parent fruit and vegetable intakes – however, given the relatively small sample size of this trial, they recommend exploring more methods for optimising parent engagement with technology-based interventions, to enable greater health benefits for both parents and their children.