Family Dynamics at the Dinner Table Affect Childhood Obesity
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So there I was, age six sitting at the dinner table with a couple of volumes of the phone book raising my bottom so I could rest my elbows on the dining table. With a fork in one hand and a spoon in the other, I was poised to do some of the most serious eating of my young life.
Mom settled my plate in front of me and, for the most part, so far so good: a nicely cut portion of steak, a manageable mound of mashed potatoes, and… wait! To my child’s eye the third heap was some unidentified vegetable-thing that was, without question, a sort of army grub that I would not be eating in this lifetime or any other.
Mom promised that if I did not finish my meal, grub included, all uneaten portions would be waiting for me at breakfast. True to her word, breakfast would consist of two leftover pieces of steak, a half-spoon of mashed potatoes, and a full heaping pile of army grub. All of it was covered with a thin sheet of ice because it had grown cold over night.
This is a tale that has been circulating ever since the first protest by a child over what she would and would not eat. In my case, and probably most others, none of it was true. That said, there are some interesting outcomes that develop from the family dining dynamic.
Who We Eat With and How We Eat With Them
A new study published in the journal Pediatrics shows that children who regularly eat meals with family have lower rates of obesity and eat more nutritiously. In addition, the study showed that the atmosphere at the dinner table could be associated with levels of childhood obesity.
The families of 120 children aged 6 to 12 recorded eight days of meals upon request from a team in the department of medicine and community health at the University of Minnesota. Requirements were that the families share at least three meals across that period. Half of the children were overweight or obese and the other half of the children were of normal weight.
In order to determine what might be influencing weight, the research team coded family interactions at mealtimes into two groups. One was the emotional atmosphere during the meal, such as how much the group seemed to enjoy the time together, how much hostility was present, and how many uncomfortable pauses and silences occurred.
The second grouping focused specifically on food, and how much hostility surfaced from conversation about food, such as weight issues and parental control over what and how much children ate.
Children who were obese or overweight had family meals that were more hostile, less communicative, and more controlled by parents. Children who were normal weight had warmer, more communicative meals involving positive reinforcements to eat. Heavier children had more negative pressures placed on them and were often made to feel guilty.
Heavier children also tended to have shorter meals, and normal weight children were more likely to have a father or step-father present at meal time.
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