Having siblings can be annoying at times, but there are benefits too like getting their hand-me-downs to making us more responsible people. But some people may not be so lucky to have one.

According to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, only-children, also referred to by the researchers as "singletons", were found to have less healthy eating habits, beverage choices, and a total Healthy Eating Index 2010 (HEI-2010).

The HEI-2010 assesses 12 components, nine of these are for adequacy of diet — total fruit; whole fruit; total vegetables; greens and beans; whole grains; dairy; total protein foods; seafood and plant proteins; and fatty acids. The other three components look at dietary elements that should be taken in moderation — refined grains, sodium, and empty calories (i.e., energy from solid fats, alcohol, and added sugars). Singletons had lower scores across three out of these 12 areas measured.

The scores were low both in the weekdays and weekends on an average, implying that the differences in eating trends can be seen both individually and collectively.

"Nutrition professionals must consider the influence of family and siblings to provide appropriate and tailored nutrition education for families of young children," said lead author Chelsea L. Kracht, who conducted the study along with Dr. Susan Sisson at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. "Efforts to help all children and families establish healthy eating habits and practices must be encouraged."

To acquire data required for the study, the researchers asked mothers to fill up questionnaires, as well as log their children's eating patterns over weekdays and one weekend.

The researchers also found that obese singletons were also likely to have obese mothers. In addition, children’s Body Mass Index (BMI and waist circumference percentiles were found to be more strongly influenced by maternal BMI than whether the children had siblings or not. Children were not being influenced by their mothers in their eating patterns, but rather their intake of empty calories.

A recent survey of more than one thousand American adults revealed that while 72% said they grew up eating at the dining room table, only 48% do so today. Image by skeeze from Pixabay

With hectic schedules, it is common for parents to rely on away-from-home care. Therefore it should be noted that the time spent in school was not found to influence children’s eating patterns, the researchers said. This points to the biggest influence here as being the household, which encompasses certain practices like eating in front of the television (family eating practices score) and consumption of sugary drinks (beverage choice score) and was found to vary between groups, they added.

“Healthier eating behaviors and patterns may result from household-level changes rather than peer exposure, as peer exposure is also present in away-from-home care,” Dr. Kracht said.

The findings of the study suggested that having multiple children forces parents to be more organized and in doing so, planning family meals better as they would have their hands full. They would also eat out less frequently. In all, this contributed to healthier eating.

The study was performed considering only mothers and children, thus paternal influence on children's eating habits could not be determined.