Fighting Childhood Obesity One Dinner at a Time

HealthGal Health Guide
  • Do you have fond memories of family meals when you were growing up?  Do you serve a family meal with everybody present some, most, or all nights of the week?  Do the meals allow for generally positive discussion, sharing of one’s day, or chatter about nutrition?  Do the meals last at least 20 to 30 minutes?  Apparently these are very important family habit goals, according to a new study published in the journal Pediatrics. 


    The concept is simple and the payoff is apparently huge when it comes to intercepting childhood obesity: According to this new study, families who express more warmth and who share in a positive way at the family meal, have lower rates of childhood obesity in their family.  Prior studies have shown the many benefits of family meals, but this study helped to clarify the specific components of the meal that yield this lowered obesity risk impact.  The lead author was interested in the “why” of why certain family dinners help to reduce childhood obesity risk. 

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    The set up


    One hundred twenty kids from families in the St. Paul/Minneapolis area were recruited.  Seventy-five percent of the kids were African American, and half the kids were overweight or obese.  These families reported eating at least three meals a week together.  An iPad recorded the meals eaten during the study over a period of eight days.  Surveys were also filled out by parents and kids.  Researchers specifically wanted to record the types of food eaten, how long the meals lasted, and the kinds of communication that took place between parents and kids, and between siblings.


    Observations from the study


    Kids who were not overweight tended to come from families where the meals lasted longer.  They also tended to have a dad or stepdad present at the meal.  Overall, meals lasted sixteen minutes, with an average meal lasting eighteen minutes for the healthy-weight kids, and meals lasting under fourteen minutes for overweight/obese kids.


    The kitchen was the most common location of the dinner meals.  But 80 percent of healthy weight kids ate dinner with their family in the kitchen, compared to only 55 percent of overweight kids.  In fact, overweight kids were more likely to eat dinner in family rooms, offices or even their bedroom.


    The more warmth and nurturing tone exhibited at the dinner table, the lower the rates of obesity among the kids.  In fact, the more hostility, permissive parent attitudes or inconsistent discipline showcased at the table, the higher the rate of childhood obesity noted among the kids in the study.  Additionally, the more parents communicated about the food being served, and food in general, the less likely the kids were overweight or obese.


    A separate twin study, published in the journal Pediatrics, helped to rule out genetic weight predispositions or environmental impacts with regards to the above study's findings.  The twin study did showcase that parents tended towards restrictive feeding patterns when feeding the twin with the higher body mass index (BMI).


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    Parents should recognize the value of dinners and promote dinnertime as a family event.  Both parents should try to be present at the table, as much as possible.  The dinner should take place in a room associated with food or feeding, and the meal should last at least 20 minutes.  What you talk about at the table, and how you interact as a family, is crucial to the meal being a positive experience.  The more positive and fun the discussions, the more likely the dinner will last longer!!  Achieving these dinner goals may help to limit childhood obesity risks in the family.  On the other hand, withholding food or specific foods may cause kids to overeat or to choose unhealthy foods on the sly.  Restrictive feeding may impair a kid’s ability to understand and experience hunger and satiation appropriately.  These two studies do highlight the crucial role parents play in a child’s weight and in how kids interact with food and feedings.



    Reuters Health

    Journal, Pediatrics, Study on dinner habits and childhood obesity rates

    Journal, Pediatrics, Study on Twins


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Published On: October 20, 2014