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Kids' weight control a family affair
We know that overweight and obese children are much more likely than normal-weight children to grow up to be overweight and obese adults. Studies have found that when parents take sole responsibility for managing their children's weight, as opposed to expecting the child to make their own behavioral or lifestyle changes, it is half as likely that the child will continue to be overweight eight years later.

Why you eat more while watching TV
The theory is that watching television distracts you from paying attention to internal cues that tell you to stop eating. These cues are of two broad types: affective cues, which include the idea of "sensory specific satiety" (essentially, becoming bored with what you're eating), and interoceptive states such as hunger and fullness (no longer being hungry or simply feeling full).

Do family meals affect family weight?
In the past thirty years or so we've seen fewer families eating dinner together regularly, and this has coincided with the increase in individual's waistlines. Plenty of studies have looked at the relationship between family meals and weight in children, but few have looked at the family unit as a whole or at the weight of the various family members - not just children.


 

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Home cooked meals more important than just eating with family



a hand holding a television remote with a television in the background

It's a common piece of advice given to parents: "Eating as a family will help your child learn how to eat healthy and maintain a healthy weight." We saw this borne out in a study at Cornell University a few years ago, in which the number of family meals eaten at home was associated with a lower BMI for the whole family.

Much of the research into family meals and weight has been focused on families with minor children, however. The word "family" isn't limited to people and their children, however. Isn't a married couple without children a family? Adult brothers or sisters living together - they're not a family?

Authors with Ohio State University analyzed responses to a telephone survey of over 12,000 adult Ohio residents who reported living with at least one other family member, defined as children, spouses, and adult siblings of the respondent, but not friends or "nonfamily members." (J Acad Nutr Diet 2017: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2017.01.009)

Those respondents who lived with a family member were further asked how often they and their family member ate together (which the researchers defined as "family meals"), how often those "family meals" were prepared and consumed at home, and how often they were also "watching a TV show or video" while they ate.

The authors used the respondents' self-reported height and weight to compute their Body Mass Index (BMI) and classified them as clinically obese (with a BMI 30 or over) or not obese (BMI under 30). Then looked at the associations between obesity, how often the respondent participated in family meals, how often those meals were made and consumed at home, and how often those family meals included watching a TV show or video while eating. They also took into account such variables as gender, marital status, age, race/ethnicity, and level of education.

To the researchers' surprise, simply eating more family meals did not mean the respondent was less likely to be obese.

Far more important was whether they watched television during those meals or whether those meals were cooked at home: those who never watched TV during family meals were 37% less likely to be obese than those who said that they "always" watched television during family meals, while those whose family meals were all cooked at home were 26% less likely to bve obese than those who ate "some" or "none" home-cooked meals.

Both avoiding television during mealtimes and eating home-cooked meals at almost all family meals meant the respondent was 47% less likely to be obese than those whose family meals were least often made at home and were consumed while watching TV.

What this means for you

We know that watching television or other distractions while you eat means both children and adults consume more, so when you eat as a family, pay attention to each other and the meal you're eating. Finally, sharp-eyed readers may have already noticed what I did about their "home-cooked meals:" the definition of "home-cooked" was left open-ended. Some people might see Hamburger Helper or Kraft Mac and Cheese as a "home-cooked meal" (As one of my patients recently said, "It's cooked, it's at home, it must be a home-cooked meal, right?"), but I don't. I would have liked to know whether these "home-cooked" meals came out of a box.

First posted: March 29, 2017