Do mothers’ health habits influence their daughters?

Family photo - Jennifer LaRue Huget and daughter Sophie Huget.

Wisdom has it that when parents have good eating and exercise habits, their children will, too. That link is particularly strong when it comes to mothers and daughters, according to a report issued at a Healthy Legacy Summit in Washington in late April.

I believe that in theory, but I’m not sure how it plays out in real life.

To help decide, I invited my 17-year-old daughter, Sophie, to share her thoughts on the effects of my health-related habits. I’ve also told my side of the story. The lines between my modeled behaviors and Sophie’s actions aren’t always straight and clear; the phenomenon plays out in subtle, unexpected ways. I’m happy to see that, rather than simply mimic my ways or adopt them wholesale, she has independently evaluated what suits her best. Here’s what we Huget women have to say:

Food

Jennifer: Before I started reporting on health, I didn’t know all that much about what constitutes good nutrition. So I did a lot of things in Sophie’s early childhood that I regret.

This includes not having enough vegetables in our diet, adding way too much brown sugar to our oatmeal and melting cheese on more foods than I should have. I’m afraid Soph had it instilled in her from an early age that food should be really sweet or really cheesy.

Sophie: When I was little, my breakfast consisted of “brown brown oatmeal,” so named for the box of brown sugar that my brother and I would pour on top of it. I would eat Fig Newtons and have Juicy Juice for a snack while watching “Blue’s Clues.” Later in the day, I would have macaroni and cheese for lunch.

I wouldn’t have done things any other way, myself.

Jennifer: Once I learned more, I paid attention to vegetables and stopped using sugar on much of anything. I still melt more cheese than I should.

One thing I’ve tried to do right all along: Take my kids to farm stands and pick out fresh fruit and vegetables. I make a big deal about how lucky we are to have those foods in our lives.

Sophie: Mom discovered sauteing vegetables. Never have I enjoyed a vegetable more. I have to admit that once the food is plated, I still grate some Parmesan cheese over the top. Cheese is an important part of my diet. When I heat up my chicken noodle soup after school, I have something cheesy with it.

Jennifer: I love to bake — homemade bread and pies, especially. But then I realized all that bread was a major contributor to my being overweight. Now when I bake baguettes, it’s really special. Still, I have to say I’m really proud my daughter knows how to bake bread, and she makes the best pie crust in the world.

Sophie: It’s true: I am so proud of my pies, and my bread is mighty fine. I still can’t envision a meal without bread. Baguette sandwiches are my favorite dinner. Cutting down on bread has been better for the whole family, but it makes me want it more.

Jennifer: I love yogurt and have always eaten it in front of the kids and offered it to them. But once Sophie decided she didn’t like yogurt, she could barely stand to be near the stuff.

Sophie: To eat yogurt years ago meant carrying warm Go-Gurt tubes to school. After the who-can-shoot-their-yogurt-farther competition, I developed an aversion to eating it. On the other hand, that Greek yogurt is delicious. It tastes like pudding, and I like pudding.

Exercise

Jennifer: I have always been a bit overweight, and for most of my adult life I have exercised daily. But for many years I obsessed about it. I would make my day and my family’s day revolve around my workout.

I would guess that my obsession probably was a big turnoff to Sophie. These days I try to be more relaxed and flexible about my schedule, and I try to talk about it in terms of how good working out makes me feel, not its effect on my weight.

Sophie: My mom used to take time away from my family to “jump around,” as my dad liked to say. I didn’t understand why she did it. No matter how long she spent on the treadmill, she’d stand in the kitchen and clutch her stomach and say she was pudgy.

I didn’t like this phenomenon, so I didn’t have anything to do with it. These days I try to get regular physical activity. I could do more, but I am doing it because I want to.

Jennifer: Yoga remains a bone of contention. The first classes I ever took were with Sophie, when she was about 10. I loved it from the first downward-facing dog and have made it a central part of my life.

But it made her feel self-conscious and uncomfortable, and she has avoided it. I keep hoping that when she goes off to college she’ll take it up. Yoga has done so much for me, and I want that for her, too.

Sophie: Yoga was once “my” thing. I went to every class while my mom opted out. I had a yoga birthday party. She says she loved it immediately, but it took some time for her. Once she made it “her” thing, I stopped doing it. I found that running helped me more than stretching in a yoga class.

Jennifer: I did not remember that yoga “belonged” to Sophie first, and it makes me feel terrible to think I took that from her.

Sleep

Jennifer: I get up at 6 a.m. every school day and stay up until 10 or 11 p.m. I sleep in on weekends if I can. My schedule rarely allows for a daytime nap.

Sophie: I get up at 6:12 on the dot every school day. I go to bed around midnight or 1 a.m. I am sleep-deprived by choice. I stay up to talk to my boyfriend, who goes to another school and whose schedule is insane.

Being a senior in high school, I have less homework, and track practice has wound down. I come home and take a nap. My mom is not happy with this. When I’m in college and can set my own schedule, this will almost definitely change. Don’t worry, Mom!

Jennifer: I’d be curious to see how Soph’s sleep schedule pans out once she’s in college. But I probably won’t know much about it, which may be for the best.

Fat talk

Jennifer: If there’s one area where I feel I’ve done poorly as a mom, it’s never having broken my habit of talking about weight, diet and appearance.

I know I used to talk in front of Sophie about how big my thighs are or how hard it was to get rid of the roll of fat around my middle. I’d often do it in a humorous or self-deprecating way. But that doesn’t change the fact that my daughter has grown up with a mother who has long measured a good bit of her self-worth by the size of her thighs.

Now that she’s older, we’ve talked about this. I work hard to not comment on weight or waistlines. But it’s ingrained in me. Maybe Sophie will be the one to break that chain.

Sophie: I have been trying to be more accepting of other people throughout high school. I branched out socially, especially this year, and I noticed that other people don’t seem to focus on fat talk as much as my family does. I am not particularly happy with how I look, but I want other people to love themselves.

Following my mom’s example is a lot like wearing matching mother-daughter clothes. You don’t notice it when you’re little. Then you think it’s cool when you realize you’re matching your mom. The next step for me, though, was understanding that I didn’t want to match my mom, love her though I do.

I see the joy my mom feels from being healthy. I’ve found the same thing, but I had to do it on my own.

Read a Q&A chat with Jennifer and Sophie. Also, we’d like to hear about your experience: Share your story .

For nutrition news, visit the Checkup blog , follow @jhuget on Twitter and subscribe to the Lean & Fit newsletter .

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