Association of Low-Income Mothers’ Eating Networks with Dietary Patterns and Habit Strength

Sydney Miller, Aimee Fata, Sarah Salvy, Kayla de la Haye


Introduction: Unhealthy dietary patterns are prevalent in low-income populations and cause many adverse health outcomes. The social context of eating embodies many sources of influence on dietary patterns, however, less understood is the role of eating partners—i.e., one’s “eating network”—on dietary intake and the extent to which eating behaviors are habitual (i.e., have strong automaticity).. This study uses social network analysis to examine low-income mothers’ eating networks, exploring how eating network size, closeness, support, and diversity, are associated with mothers’ food intake and habits. Methods: Data are from an ongoing childhood obesity prevention trial that enrolls low-income, predominantly minority mothers and their infants. These analyses focus on mothers’ (N=32; M age=28; 74% Latina) consumption of sugar-sweetened beverage, fried food, fruit, and vegetable; with both intake frequency and habit strength (Gardner et al., 2012) of each food type as outcomes. Characteristics of mothers’ social networks were tested as predictors. Egocentric network measures were used to list and characterize 15 of the mothers’ close social ties, and compute: the proportion of their network who were eating partners (i.e., eating network); and the proportion of their eating network that were family, frequent contacts, emotionally close ties, and providers of health support. Regression models tested for associations between network characteristics and (1) mothers’ food intake, and (b) habit strength, for each food type, controlling for age and weight status. Results: Mothers with larger eating networks consumed significantly less fried food (p=0.03) and had weaker fried food habits (p=0.04) and stronger vegetable intake habits (p=0.05). Within the eating network, having a greater proportion of family was associated with stronger fruit intake habits (p=0.04), and a greater proportion of close ties was associated with weaker fried food habits (p=0.04). Within the eating network, increased health encouragement was associated with lower fruit (p=0.01) and vegetable (p=0.04) intake. Conclusion: These findings align with previous research and theory, and suggest that for low-income mothers, having larger eating networks is associated with stronger and healthier dietary habits. Having more family and close ties among eating partners is also associated with some healthier habits, and eating partners appeared to be responsive to under-consumption of healthy foods (low fruit and vegetable intake) by providing health encouragement. Family-based eating interventions may want to leverage and foster mothers’ social networks.

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