The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Getting Children to Eat Right

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Because they see everything though an economic lens, left-leaning commentators typically invoke differences in household income to explain the advantages enjoyed by children growing up in intact families. But evidence continues to mount suggesting that those advantages reflect cultural and behavioral patterns not easily reduced to dollars and cents. One more piece of such evidence may be found in a study of adolescents’ eating habits conducted by researchers at the Lithuanian University of Health Sciences.

To assess eating habits of young adolescents, the researchers analyzed data collected between 2002 and 2010 from fifth, seventh, and ninth graders enrolled in approximately one hundred schools scattered across Lithuania. Though less decisive than rural vs. urban residence, family structure emerged as a notable influence on children’s eating habits. “According to our data,” the researchers report, “family structure was a significant predictor of nutrition inequalities among Lithuanian adolescents.” In particular, the researchers find that, when compared with peers in non-intact families, the girls in their study who lived in intact families were eating significantly less of unhealthy snack foods (p = 0.035) and significantly more of healthy vegetables (p = 0.001). The researchers thus conclude that “non-intact families have decreased overall nutrition,” compared to intact families.

Understandably, the researchers interpret their findings against the backdrop of “previous studies . . . suggesting [that] significant differences exist between ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ food consumption among children living in intact and non-intact families, which are mainly related to divorce.” These earlier studies have identified “psychological factors after divorce . . . [as] a large influence on a child’s nutrition and health.”

Because health professionals need to understand the “reasons for . . . healthy and unhealthy food consumption,” the researchers urge their colleagues to scrutinize “social determinants . . . as the main factors that might influence nutrition among school-aged children.” Family structure stands out as a social determinant deserving attention. After all, the researchers found that “more than a quarter (26.7%) of the children [in their study] lived in non-intact families” and that “this proportion grew significantly” during the eight years the study was in progress.

At a time when America is struggling with runaway health-care costs and when more than a quarter of her children live in non-intact families, this study speaks directly to American circumstances.

(Apolinaras Zaborskis et al., “Trends in Eating Habits among Lithuanian School-Aged Children in Context of Social Inequality: Three Cross-Sectional Surveys 2002, 2006, 2010,” BMC Public Health 12 [January 19, 2012]: 52.)