Socioeconomic disadvantage in neighborhoods may compromise the dietary quality of young children and increase the risk of childhood obesity, according to a doctoral thesis conducted at the University of Turku's Faculty of Medicine. This research sheds light on individual, parenting, and environmental factors related to children's eating habits.

Childhood obesity is on the rise worldwide, starting as early as infancy. Harmful dietary habits leading to obesity often begin to develop during early childhood.

Prior studies have shown that characteristics of a child's eating behavior, as well as factors related to parenting and socioeconomic environment, are linked to the development of risk factors for obesity during early childhood.

However, the relationships between different levels of dietary quality and weight have not been extensively explored.

In her doctoral research, Saija Tarro aimed to investigate individual, family, and neighborhood-level factors related to early childhood eating habits and weight, as well as their interconnections. The study was based on data from the "Keys to a Healthy Childhood" longitudinal study.

According to the findings, the quality of children's diets and their body mass index (BMI) were associated with individual, family, and neighborhood-level factors. Parents of young children in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas exhibited notably poorer dietary quality, and the quality of parental diets was further connected to the dietary quality of their children. Additionally, children living in disadvantaged areas with a strong appetite had a higher risk of obesity compared to their peers in more affluent neighborhoods.

"It is highly likely that more affluent residential areas offer healthier food environments compared to disadvantaged areas, potentially widening health disparities in families. This could have far-reaching public health consequences since dietary habits are known to be passed down from one generation to the next. Different residential areas provide distinct food selections, limiting opportunities for dietary improvement or adherence to dietary guidelines," explained Tarro.

Parental self-efficacy matters too.

Research has also shown that parental self-efficacy is linked to a child's health behaviors, such as the consumption of fruits and vegetables. However, the connection between parental self-efficacy and a child's overall dietary quality has not been thoroughly explored. Self-efficacy can be defined as a person's belief in their ability to act or behave in a specific way and overcome situational challenges.

This doctoral research offers fresh insights and demonstrates that a mother's higher self-efficacy was associated with better dietary quality in children. Parental self-efficacy is an aspect that is not currently screened in maternity and child health clinics.

"This study introduces new perspectives to the work carried out in maternity and child health clinics. Addressing socioeconomic inequalities in residential areas should be part of urban planning, and efforts to create environments that promote healthy dietary choices should be encouraged. Furthermore, families should be guided and empowered to make healthy choices," Tarro concludes.