Leading by Example: Research Explores Moms' Role in Girls' Health and Nutrition September 26, 2006; Page D1 Most parents try to set a good example for their kids. But increasingly researchers are focusing on the uniquely powerful influence a mother's health behaviors have on her daughter. A number of studies now show that the choices a mother makes -- from the beverages she drinks to where she keeps the family snacks -- dramatically affect her daughter's nutrition, long-term health and risk for being overweight. This week, some of the nation's top nutrition researchers are gathering in New York City to discuss the importance of mother-daughter role modeling and the long-term implications for a woman's health. Although fathers obviously are important role models to their children, researchers pay special attention to the role of mothers because women traditionally make food and nutrition choices for the family. And because girls are at higher risk than boys for eating disorders when they are young, and for osteoporosis later in life, much of the existing research focuses on girls and how eating patterns, calcium consumption and exercise habits are influenced by mothers. However, researchers say the lessons learned from watching mothers and daughters likely can be useful for parents and children of both genders. The overall lesson is obvious but not well-followed: It's what you do, not what you say, that has the biggest impact on a child's health. A number of studies show that a mother's own nutrition choices appear to be far more influential than any other attempts she makes to control what her child eats. One recent study looked at about 200 girls, some of whom consumed healthful diets with less than 30% fat and others who ate high-fat diets. Notably, mothers of girls in the high-fat group were more likely to attempt to restrict food and pressure their daughters to eat differently. At the same time, mothers of high-fat eaters were far more likely to be high-fat eaters themselves, according to the 2001 study in the journal Pediatrics. "Parents often don't realize how much opportunity they have to shape what kids are doing," says Leann Birch, director of the Center for Childhood Obesity Research at Pennsylvania State University in Philadelphia and co-author of the study. "In some ways we are much better off to encourage parents to be good models, rather than to tell kids to eat their vegetables. If parents would just shut up and do it themselves, they would be much more successful," in keeping kids healthy. And numerous studies show that restricting what kids eat typically backfires. Children of women who frequently attempt diets or who put treats far out of reach are more likely to binge on sweets and overeat when they are finally given access to the forbidden foods. Dr. Birch cites one study of preschoolers that looked at how the availability of certain snacks influenced how much the kids wanted to eat them. The researchers used fig cookies, making them available at any time or putting them away in a glass jar. The result: Kids didn't pay much attention to the snacks when they were easily available, but clamored for them when they were restricted. "They paid a lot more attention to the things that had been restricted," says Dr. Birch. "They took more and they ate more." Surprisingly, the beverages a mother chooses to drink often have a profound influence on her daughter's health. Beverages are often packed with calories that don't fill you up, and studies have shown that children who consume high levels of sodas, juice and flavored drinks are at higher risk for being overweight. Children of women who often consume soft drinks typically drink more soda and less milk than children of women who don't regularly consume sugared soft drinks, according to a 2001 study in the Journal of Nutrition that was funded in part by the dairy industry. Part of the reason a mother's beverage choice makes such a difference is that mothers tend to do the grocery shopping and are likely to stock the fridge with the type of drinks they consume themselves. But mothers also serve as role models. Role modeling is also particularly important when it comes to exercise. Studies show that both fathers and mothers can influence a child's physical-activity level simply by exercising themselves. But mothers are uniquely important for two reasons. Since kids tend to model their exercise behavior after the same-sex parent, a mother's exercise habits are particularly important because studies show that compared with boys, the average girl's exercise level drops dramatically after the age of 9. And a mother's views about exercise also matter because they tend to manage family logistics. Mothers who make the effort to sign up kids for sports and chauffeur them to practice are more likely to have kids who exercise. "We're trying to emphasize to the moms that they're being watched whether they realize it or not," says Christina Economos, assistant professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts University in Boston, who is speaking at the role-modeling summit this week. "They're going to have a big impact on their daughter's lives and the choices they make."