Sugar Rush: Dysfunctional Families May Feed Kids More Sugar

Eating candy
Families that aren't able to function effectively tend to feed their kids more sugar, suggesting sugary food and drinks are a coping mechanism. Michael Bentley CC BY 2.0

How well does your family function? Is it a well-oiled machine, going about daily activities with such fluid ease that it makes an Olympic synchronized swimming team look like a bunch of headless chickens? Or is your family wild, out of control, and chaotic, even on its best days? If you said your family is the former, new research shows your kids may be eating too much sugar.  

New research, called the East London Family Study (ELF) and published in the Journal of Caries Research, found that mothers limited the amount of sugary foods and drinks their 3- and 4-year-olds consumed if they felt the general functioning of the family was effective. However, when moms felt the family was functioning less effectively, the kids in the family tended to see an increase in the amount of sugary food and drinks available.

According to PsyPost, effective family functioning is defined as a family that’s able to manage daily life and resolve problems in the context of warm and affective family interactions, through clear communication, well-defined roles, and flexible behavior control.

The ELF Study is believed to be the first of its kind to look at the relationship between high sugar consumption and poor family functioning. It didn’t just skew to the traditional, nuclear family you see on TV, either. Professor Wagner Marcenes, lead author of the study, said, “Our research adopted a broad definition of ‘family’ and we included single parents, and those who are divorced, co-habiting, and same-sex family types.”

The research involved 1,174 3- and 4-year-olds, as well as their parents, and ultimately sought to determine the importance of proper family functioning on health. Mothers who had a lower level of education but still ran a tight ship were more likely to give their kids less than four intakes of sugary foods, like breakfast cereals, when compared to those whose family functioning was impaired. Effective family functioning was shown to lead to a healthy diet even in people with a lower education, crime, and money troubles.

“We live in a very materialistic world but material resources alone cannot fulfill us,” Marcenese said. “A functional family is a major source of pleasure in life, providing comfort and reward. In contrast, dysfunctional families are a major source of frustration and stress — and this can lead to high sugar consumption in the search for the ‘feel-good’ effect.”

Dr. Sucharita Nanjappa, who co-authored the study, said that the study took information regarding a family’s day-to-day life. It has “the potential to lead to interventions that are based on identifying, encouraging, and developing the family’s own positive resources to help improve the health of its members — through the acquisition of healthy lifestyle.”

Source: Nanjappa S. Hector M. Marcenes W. Mother's Perception of General Family Functioning and Sugar Consumption of 3- and 4-Year-Old Children: The East London Family Study. Journal of Caries Research . 2015.

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