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New parent? Watch the saturated fat

By Jen Christensen, CNN
updated 7:29 AM EDT, Fri August 10, 2012
Parents eat more saturated fat than people without children, according to a new study.
Parents eat more saturated fat than people without children, according to a new study.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • New parents may feel they don't have time to eat healthy meals
  • A study shows parents eat more saturated fat than people without children
  • Expert: What parents choose to eat sends a message to children

Atlanta (CNN) -- When people think about having children, they often talk about how they can be good role models for their kids, including maintaining a healthier diet.

Yet when Leah Case takes her 10-month-old daughter Elliot to playgroup, the parents there often admit they let healthy eating slide. They feel like they don't have time.

"Life does radically change when you have kids," Case said. In addition to being a new mom, she runs a wedding photography business and teaches a cardio kickboxing class.

"It is a little more chaotic now and a lot harder to balance everything," she said.

Six years ago, Case lost 50 pounds through strict discipline, including regular exercise and religiously counted calories.

"I noticed, though, the first few months after she was born, I became a lot less vigilant," Case said. "Admittedly, I just wanted to hang out with my daughter."

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According to one of the first studies of its kind to look at parental eating habits, that's often the case with new parents. Despite their best intentions, most do not improve their diets after their children are born.

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In fact, the study found parents eat more saturated fat than people who aren't parents. A diet high in saturated fat can lead to obesity, high cholesterol, heart attacks and Type 2 diabetes.

"Parents of younger children do tend to bring in more convenience foods into the home more often," said Dr. Helena Laroche, the lead author on the study. "That may account for the difference in saturated fat intake."

Laroche's study appeared in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. It examined data collected in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults cohort study, which followed more than 2,000 young adults for 20 years.

Her research focused on the first seven years of a new parent's life, comparing how often they ate and what they ate to the eating habits of people without children.

It asked people to document how much saturated fat was in their diet, how many fruits and vegetables they ate, how often they went out for fast food, and how much soda and juice they consumed.

Other than with saturated fat intake, parents' diets were similar to those people without kids. "Ultimately, neither had the ideal diet at the end of seven years," Laroche said.

Still, Laroche said, parents should know that what they choose to eat sends powerful messages to their children.

"The big takeaway from our study is that we really do want parents to be better role models for their children when it comes to healthy eating," she said.

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"Parenting is the great teachable moment when you can make sure the whole family eats well -- because kids do want to eat what you eat. If they see you eat vegetables, they will want to do that, too. We need to take better advantage of our influence here."

Because she didn't want parenthood to cause her to backslide, when Case settled more into a routine, she decided to make healthy eating possible for her family by making it more convenient.

She uses a grocery-shopping app to add only needed items to her list and then sticks to it to avoid tempting junk food at the store. She and her husband shop almost exclusively at a farmers' market. They also plan healthy menus.

"I was always overweight as a teen, in large part because I wasn't aware of my diet," she said. "I make a deliberate effort to stay conscious of these healthy eating habits now because this doesn't just impact me. It impacts my entire family."

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