With layoffs, downsizing, pay cuts and tough competition for jobs in this economy, work-related stress can run rampant. Such stress, according to a new study, could negatively impact families' eating habits.
The study, conducted by researchers at Temple University, focused on food preparation and nutrition among working parents. It is one of the first studies to look at work/family conflict for both parents, not just mothers, and to focus on families of adolescents.
"Our work underlined the need to take into account the competing pressures that so many families – especially those that are lower income – are experiencing," said lead author Katherine Bauer, an assistant professor of public health and researcher at Temple's Center for Obesity Research and Education. "There's a great need to help parents find realistic and sustainable ways to feed their families more healthfully while taking into consideration all of the stresses on parents these days."
Researchers studied 3,709 parents of adolescents, many of whom were from a racial or ethnic minority group and lower income. Sixty-four percent of fathers and 46 percent of mothers were employed full-time.
Mothers employed full-time "reported fewer family meals, more frequent fast food for family meals, less frequent encouragement of their adolescents' healthful eating, lower fruit and vegetable intake and less time spent on food preparation, compared to part-time and not-employed mothers," said Bauer.
The study also examined fathers – in particular a population of urban fathers, who face higher rates of unemployment and under-employment. Study results showed that the only difference among fathers by employment status was that full-time employed fathers reported significantly fewer hours of food preparation than part-time or not working fathers.
Regardless of employment status, mothers spent hours on food preparation than fathers.
When looking at the role of work-life stress, greater stress levels appeared to interfere with healthful eating opportunities for both moms and dads. For example, parents experiencing high levels of work-life stress reported having one-and-a-half fewer family meals per week and eating half a serving less of fruits and vegetables per day, as compared to parents with low levels of work-life stress.
Bauer noted that over time, these differences can add up and a big impact on parents' and children's health. She added, however, that the burden of this problem should not fall solely on mothers, and instead be approached holistically by the whole family, the community and society.
She suggests that spouses, partners and teenagers chip in to help with grocery shopping and preparing and serving healthy family meals.
"We need to teach kids how to cook," said Bauer. "We know if kids have cooking skills and good eating habits, not only will they be healthier, but as adults they'll put those skills to use to feed their own children more healthfully."