As our children grow up and start to make their own meal choices, the effects of their family upbringing on food preferences disappear. This was according to research carried out among a large group of older teenage twins by UCL and King’s College London.
The study results mean that efforts to improve adolescent nutrition may be best targeted at the bigger environment, rather than the home. The strategies focused on increasing the availability and lowering the cost of healthier foods. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a study that found genes have a moderate impact on food preferences in late adolescence, in keeping with earlier findings from young children.
There were 2,865 twins aged 18-19 years old that were part of the research. This was the first research to show how substantial influences of the shared family environment in early childhood are replaced by environmental influences unique to each individual upon the time they actually enter young adulthood.
Studies had previously been done that showed aspects of the shared family environment played an important role in shaping children’s food preferences, but the relative influences of genes and the environment on older teenagers’ preferences had previously been unknown.
One of the lead researchers, Dr. Clare Llewellyn of UCL Epidemiology & Public Health, said that understanding where food preferences come from is crucial for initiative to improve healthy food choices. It also showed that by the time an individual is 18 years old, the influences of the earlier family environment no longer exerted any detectable effects. Body weight had the same observation. The obesity researchers have long been interested in food preferences, and these findings have the potential to inform interventions that can be implemented in response to the imminent UK childhood obesity strategy.
Co-lead researcher Andrea Smith, PhD, said that finding this substantial influence of the environment suggests that food preferences can be successfully shifted towards more healthy choices at this age. The healthier food choice and the easier choice for everyone’s policies, have great potential to achieve substantial public health improvements. The UK sugar-sweetened beverage levy is soon to be introduced and is one initiative that has the potential to promote a healthy food and drink environment.
Participants from the Twins Early Development Study were involved. A self-report questionnaire of 62 individual foods were categorized into six food groups and measured. These food groups were fruits, vegetables, meat-fish, dairy, starch food and snacks.
-Dr Fredda Branyon