Families who express more warmth, group enjoyment and positive reinforcement at family meals have children with reduced risk of obesity, according to a new study from the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Past research has shown that having frequent family meals is protective against youth obesity, but scientists have been unsure why this is the case.
The study involved 120 children, ages six to 12, from families in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area who reported eating dinner as a family at least three times per week.
Family meals were video-recorded on iPads for an eight-day period. They recorded types of foods, meal length, communication and interaction between parents and children and between siblings. Researchers also used parent and child surveys and interviews.
Three-quarters of the children were African American and half were overweight or obese.
Kids who were not overweight were more likely than overweight kids to have family meals last longer and to have a father or stepfather present. Overall, dinners lasted about 16 minutes, with an average of 18 minutes for healthy weight kids and 13.5 minutes for overweight kids.
According to the lead researcher, this may mean that when children have structure and more supervision at the meal they have more protection against overweight or obesity, (meaning) maybe a less chaotic meal environment and more chances to connect.
The kitchen was the most common location for dinners; 80 percent of healthy weight kids ate dinner with their families in a kitchen, compared to 55 percent of overweight kids. More families of overweight kids tended to eat in family rooms, offices or bedrooms.
Families with more warmth and nurturing, as rated by researchers observing the videos, were less likely to have overweight or obese children. Hostility, inconsistent discipline and permissive parental attitudes were associated with increased likelihood of childhood obesity.
This may mean that in households where children are not overweight or obese there are more positive interactions at the family meal, which provides a sense of security, regularity and predictability which may help children regulate their own daily lives better, including self-regulating their eating behaviors, the researchers speculate.
Families who communicated more about food were less likely to have overweight or obese children, according to the results.
“It is important for families to try and promote a positive atmosphere during family meals,” the lead researcher said. “For example, don’t use the family meal as a time to lecture children about their homework. Instead, take time to connect with each other such as asking each family member to talk about a ‘high’ or ‘low’ from their day to promote connectivity among family members.”
Source: Pediatrics, online October 13, 2014.
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