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It's what you eat, not with whom



Last year we reported on a small study that seemed to indicate that more family meals at home meant that the members family were less likely to be overweight (Bite, 08/24/11). That certainly seems an obvious conclusion when you also consider the larger portion sizes available even at sit-down restaurants and the poor quality of the foods available at many fast food restaurants.

What those researchers did not ask, however, was what people were eating when they ate at home. In a very interesting study out of the University of Minnesota, researchers recruited over 700 local children in grades 6 through 11 along with one of their parents (J Am Diet Assoc 2011;111:1892-1897). The child and parent both had their height and weight measured and their body fat percentage measured as well. Some of the adolescents also had their blood drawn to test cholesterol scores as well as glucose and insulin levels.

The researchers asked the parents how often their family ate their evening meal together in the past week. They then asked how often their family evening meals were:

  1. Purchased from a fast-food restaurant and eaten either at the restaurant or at home?
  2. Purchased and eaten in full service, sit-down restaurants?
  3. Delivered to the home (such as pizza or sandwiches)?
  4. Picked up and taken home as takeout food?

It shouldn't surprise you that those who reported getting four of their family meals from each one of those sources were 4 times more likely to be overweight or obese than those whose family meals were all cooked and eaten at home. That's a lot of eating out, even if the food is eaten at home.

However, those adolescents whose families ate their evening meal from one of those sources on just one occasion in the previous week were between 1 1/2 and 2 times as likely to be overweight or obese. Further, their cholesterol, insulin and blood glucose scores were significantly worse than those adolescents whose families did not purchase an evening meal from one of those sources.

What this means for you

Because this is what is known as a cross-sectional study, which looks at a single snapshot in time, it's difficult to say that family meals purchased outside the home are a direct cause of overweight and obesity. After all, we know that it's possible to eat fast food and lose weight. That said, the best way for you to control the quality and amount of what you and your family eat is to make it yourself. In terms of your family's health, what you eat is more important than who you eat it with.

First posted: February 15, 2012