The truth about mothers, daughters and health

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Here’s how it’s supposed to work: Mothers model healthful eating and exercise behaviors. Their children, particularly their daughters, adopt those behaviors themselves. And everyone lives happily ever after.

As I — and my own daughter, Sophie — write in this week’s “Eat, Drink and Be Healthy” column, it’s not always as clear-cut as that. For one thing, the behaviors even well-meaning moms model aren’t always all that healthful. And daughters aren’t always eager to do just what their moms want them to do. (Sophie likened this to the mommy-daughter dress phenomenon; fun when you’re really little, but there comes a point when you don’t want to dress like your mommy any longer.)

In late April, a conference sponsored by the National Milk Moustache “got milk?” campaign and held in the District explored the connections between mothers’ health-related behaviors and daughters’ health, weight and self-image. The discussion centered on a report summarizing the research in this area. (Not surprisingly, a good bit of the research focused on how mothers’ milk-drinking habits influence girls’ milk consumption.)

Elizabeth Ward, a registered dietitian, nutrition consultant and author of an upcoming book about the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, served on that panel. I talked with her about how that research plays out in real life.

“Once you have kids, you become way more cognizant about what you put in your body,” Ward told me. This is especially true when you’re pregnant, she adds. “But then life gets ahead of you,” and sometimes your own healthful habits, and your awareness of the need to pass good habits on to your children, fall by the wayside.

But it’s important for moms to get back on track, Ward says, which can happen “one step at a time.”

“I have to say, Mom has to lead the way,” Ward says. “It’s just the way it is. We are such a strong influences. That’s our role. You have to embrace it and run with it.”

“There’s a strong bond between mother and daughter, no question,” Ward continues. “When it comes to eating, it may be even stronger than we thought.”

“I have three girls,” Ward adds. “I felt for so long that they weren’t getting the message. But it’s so important to hang in there as a parent.” And, she adds: “To do the best for them, you have to take care of your own body. Show your kids that you value your own health.”

“You think you’re doing all the right things, but you don’t always see them in their [your children’s] actions,” Ward acknowledges. “But you’re setting a standard. When you hear kids talk about how other families eat, you realize what a high standard you’ve set.”

I’d like to hear from other mothers — and daughters, too! — about how this whole modeling business has gone in your family.

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