Family Meals Can Protect Against Obesity

The quest to protect teens from obesity may be a simple as ensuring they sit down with the family for several meals a week.

Public health experts say that over a third of all adult Americans are obese. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity now affects 17 percent of all children and adolescents in the United States — triple the rate from just one generation ago.

Overweight or obese youth are more likely to become overweight and obese adults, and investigators are studying various preventative initiatives.

For example, it has been suggested that family meals, which tend to include fruits, vegetables, calcium, and whole grains, could be protective against obesity.

As such, a new study evaluated whether frequent family meals during adolescence were protective for overweight and obesity in adulthood.

The study is scheduled for publication in the Journal of Pediatrics.

For the research, Jerica M. Berge, Ph.D., M.P.H., and colleagues from the University of Minnesota and Columbia University used data from a 10-year longitudinal study (2,287 subjects).

The study, called Project EAT (Eating and Activity among Teens), examined weight-related variables (e.g., dietary intake, physical activity, weight control behaviors) among adolescents. Questions were asked to assess family meal frequency and body mass index.

According to Berge, “It is important to identify modifiable factors in the home environment, such as family meals, that can protect against overweight/obesity through the transition to adulthood.”

Fifty-one percent of the subjects were overweight and 22 percent were obese.

Among adolescents who reported that they never ate family meals together, 60 percent were overweight and 29 percent were obese at the 10-year follow-up.

Researchers found that even having as few as one or two family meals a week during adolescence, were significantly associated with reduced odds of overweight or obesity at the 10-year follow-up compared with those reporting never having had family meals during adolescence.

The protective effect of family meal frequency on obesity was stronger among black young adults compared with white young adults. But the limited significant interactions overall by race/ethnicity suggest that the protective influence of family meals for adolescents spans all races/ethnicities.

Researchers believe family meals help protect against obesity or overweight for numerous reasons. First, touching base and communicating over meals may provide opportunities for emotional connections among family members.

In addition, the food is more likely to be healthful, and teens benefit from parental modeling of healthful eating behaviors.

As noted by Berge, “Informing parents that even having one or two family meals per week may protect their child from overweight or obesity in young adulthood would be important.”

Researchers believe the study finding give health care providers and public health workers another tool to share with parents in the fight against obesity.

Source: Elsevier Health Sciences

Girl eating dinner with her family photo by shutterstock.