I am still on vacation, so Happy Thanksgiving…
When I was growing up, family meals were not an everyday event. My mother, a nurse, often worked evenings, so those days we obviously couldn’t all eat together. But we did make an effort to eat as a family on the other days. Similarly, when we were raising our kids, despite my working shifts and both my wife and I traveling a fair amount for our jobs, we also placed a premium on eating together whenever possible. That often meant having dinner 5:30 some days and 8:30 on others, but it seemed worth it. After all, the demise of the family dinner has been cited as one important factor in the obesity epidemic, along with a host of other societal ills.
A new study in Pediatrics suggests that when it comes to risk of obesity, at least, not all family meals are created equal. Researchers at the University of Minnesota, using a mixed-methods study including direct observation of 120 primarily low-income families, identified aspects of mealtime that were associated with obesity in the children. While non-overweight children tended to have somewhat longer meals, and were more likely to eat in the kitchen or dining room vs. family room, the differences were small, and most meals were short (< 20 minutes), and the majority of both groups ate in a dining area. More important were the family dynamics. After adjusting for demographic factors (including parental BMI), the most important factors associated with child overweight or obesity were presence of positive interactions among family members (for example, enjoyment of each others’ company, warm interactions, positive reinforcement), and the absence of negative ones (hostility, lack of discipline, etc.). Interestingly, very few food-specific dynamics were relevant. Only moralizing about food – for example, “Eat what I gave you – other children are hungry and would be happy to have it” – was associated with the child’s weight; children who were hectored were more likely to be overweight.
Good information for those of us with families, or who are providing advice to families. Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and a proponent of better eating (for the sake of our own health as well as that of the planet, sums his advice up succinctly into 3 rules: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly vegetables.” To which we might add a fourth “Eat with people you like and get along with..”