People hate hearing the sad – but true – advice that in order to avoid weight gain they should eat less. It’s especially frustrating that the target for reduction is food we love: Ice cream, chocolate, cookies and French fries.
We hate when things we like are taken away from us.
That’s why I’m fond of weight control, wellness and prevention advice that emphasizes what we should be doing more of, especially if that something is akin to a gift.
So here’s a good one: To avoid weight gain and eat better eat in company.
Losing weight is ever so hard. That’s why the focus, especially with kids, is on prevention of weight gain. The habits instilled at home are a protective shield, and they act as the ongoing voice in kids’ head as they encounter the obesogenic food environment outside. Parents influence kids’ habits both by the foods they prepare, stock and serve at home, and by their own behavior and choices.
And the perfect setting for shaping kids’ choices is the family meal.
The importance of eating together
A new meta-analysis studied the relationship between family meals and children’s weight gain. A previous meta-analysis in Pediatrics found that shared meals were associated with better nutritional health in kids – healthier weight, healthier choices and fewer eating disorders –that analysis included 17 studies.
The current study, published in Obesity Reviews, included 57 studies and more than 200,000 participants, three times as many as the Pediatrics study. Family meals were again associated with lower risk of being overweight, with a healthier diet, and fewer unhealthy diet habits.
The study shows a correlation, but one can easily explain why family meals could actually cause better habits. Family meals are usually composed of more nutritious foods – when one eats alone they’re more likely to eat fast food or a prepared, microwavable meal. Eating together enables demonstration of good habits, role modeling and it fosters positive interaction.
But aren’t frequent family meals simply more common in better organized homes, in homes with a higher socioeconomic status? And if that’s so, don’t kids in these homes have better eating habits and less obesity anyway?
Because this new analysis pooled many participants and studies together, the researchers could look specifically at the studies that controlled for socioeconomic status, and they found that even when controlling for socioeconomic status, more frequent family meals were correlated with better nutrition and weight status.
We’ll never be able to completely disentangle the fact that healthy tendencies and habits usually cluster: Families with positive relationships might eat together more, and parents who are more health conscious may eat more meals together. It’s hard to completely rule out random association and reverse causality – a positive family relationship might be the cause or the result of eating together.
But whether eating together conclusively causes better nutrition or not, eating together is a very good idea. The family meal offers a great opportunity to lead by example, communicate good habits and to bond.
And it can be fun!
Family meals: A gift that keeps on giving
Not that it’s easy. With the stresses of parents’ work, kids’ studies and extracurricular activities, and all the distractions vying for our attention, serving a nutritious meal and eating it together is no trivial matter.
Nevertheless, the family meal is a gift.
The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) devoted its current issue to obesity. It’s the third time in 15 years that JAMA devotes an entire edition to this theme. In its editorial, Edward Livingston laments that the last time JAMA devoted an issue to this problem was six years ago, and that there was some optimism at that time – it seemed like progress was being made. That optimism is gone, he states, as obesity rates continued to climb, especially among children.
So while health professionals continue to debate the merits of bariatric surgery and weight loss diets, and public health advocates try to move the needle with soda taxes, families can carve this little island of commercial-free healthy eating.
Our obesogenic environment isn’t changing fast enough. But the dinner table is our opportunity for nourishing, minimally processed, fruit and veggie rich, free of sugary drinks, conversation-infused, digitally distraction-less, unrushed oasis.
Make eating together a priority. It really is worth the time and the effort. Even the simplest of foods are better when enjoyed in company.