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Parents' work-family stress harms family's eating habits, U of M study finds

Fast food meal

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Stressed-out parents buy more fast food for their families.

With parents having to work even harder and longer these days to hang on to their jobs, no wonder they're feeling stressed. And that stress, it appears, is having a damaging effect on their family’s eating habits. For, according to a new study from the University of Minnesota, working parents who report having a high work-life stress load tend to provide a less healthful food environment for their teenage children.

Their families eat more fast food, for example, and fewer fruits and vegetables.

Like earlier research, the study, which involved data collected from more than 3,700 Twin Cities families, found that mothers had the biggest impact on the family’s eating habits — most likely because they continue to shoulder most of the food-related duties. The working moms in the study spent, on average, almost twice as long each week (8.8 hours) as the working dads (4.7 hours) getting the family’s meals together.

“But this is not about moms falling down on their responsibilities,” said the study’s lead author, Katherine Bauer, in a phone interview Monday. Bauer, who was a postdoctoral student at the U of M when the study was conducted, is now an assistant professor in public health at Temple University in Philadelphia.

“It’s about communities needing to support families,” she added. “We need to find ways to alleviate the stress on families rather than put all this burden on moms.”

A cross-section of families

For the study, Bauer and her colleagues analyzed data from the U of M’s Project EAT, an ongoing research project that began surveying Minnesota teens and their families about their dietary habits in the late 1990s. The surveys used in the current study were taken in 2009 and 2010 and represent a socioeconomic cross-section of families. Some 64 percent of the fathers and 46 percent of the mothers were employed full-time.

The researchers wanted to study this issue from the perspective of  families with teenagers for several reasons. One was the fact that little is known about how parental employment impacts the food environments of families with adolescent-aged children; most past studies have focused on families with younger children. In addition, teens can take part in food purchases and preparation — a factor that may influence, either positively or negatively, their family’s food environment.

A nuanced finding

The analysis of the Project EAT data found that the families of mothers employed full time had fewer family meals together, ate fewer fruits and vegetables, and turned to fast food more often than those with non-employed mothers. The working moms also tended to spend less time both preparing food for their families and encouraging their children to make more healthful food choices. Mothers not working outside the home drank more sugary beverages than their at-work peer, however.

With dads, the differences were much less stark. In fact, there was only one: Fathers employed full time were found to spend much less time (about half as much) on family food preparation as non-working dads.

But the message from the study wasn’t as simple as “working moms: bad for family’s eating habits” and “working dads: not so bad.”

“When we dug deeper [into the data] and looked at the issue of work stress and work-life balance, then dad really seemed to matter,” she said. “If dad was stressed out, then the family nutrition was really impacted.” The family ate fewer breakfasts, for example, and consumed more soda and fast food.

Lifting the burden off mom

The study also found that when the fathers worked part-time or were unemployed, but the mothers worked full time, the mothers were still doing most of the food shopping and preparation.

“There’s still a gender division, and women are still responsible for food in the home,” said Bauer. “We need to break through these gender barriers and make it acceptable for men to step up and be equal partners with mom in this respect.”

Everybody in the family — including teenage children — should help with the grocery shopping and the preparation of nutritious family meals, she suggested. Teaching teenagers to cook will also ensure that they take healthful eating habits into their adulthood — and that they pass those habits on to their own children.

“It can’t be mom working full time and being expected to make every meal,” said Bauer.

Society also has a role to play in helping families eat more nutritiously, she added. “Families can’t do it alone,” she said. “They can’t be expected to be under all this stress and make healthful meals and be healthy themselves.”

Lack of time is a barrier

Not surprisingly, the study found that working parents’ lack of time was a key barrier to serving more nutritious meals in their homes. Employers can help in this regard, said Bauer, by modifying workplace environments to include such stress-reducing policies as job sharing, flexible scheduling and telecommuting — particularly for women.

“If mom has time because she’s at home, she seems to be able to pull the meals together and eat better,” said Bauer.

The study, which was supported with funding from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, appears in the August issue of the journal Social Science & Medicine.

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