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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.

Kids' weight control a family affair
e 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.


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The war on obesity is not limited to adults

A family eating dinner together

Children are becoming overweight right alongside their parents. Since eating habits are formed in childhood, researchers in pediatrics are examining how parents can best help their children form healthy eating habits. To do that, the researchers need to evaluate what strategies parents are currently using and how well they work.

A recent observational study of the childhood mealtime environment (Appetite 2007;48:37-45) made use of information gathered in the Child Development Project (CDP). The CDP recruited 585 children and their parents in 1987-88. The children were all about five years old, but their families spanned the socioeconomic spectrum. A portion of those children were randomly selected to be observed in their home for two 2-hour periods to record family interactions, and those periods were scheduled to include the child's dinner time. A trained observer came into the home and took notes of the family's interactions, while the family was instructed to follow their usual routines and ignore the observer as much as possible.

The researchers identified nine strategies that parents used to influence their child's eating behavior, noting that these strategies were all attempts to get the child to eat more, as opposed to less. (Only 13% of parents tried to restrict the amount of food a child ate.) They also recorded whether that strategy worked and how much more (if any) the child ate in response.

They found that children most often obeyed their parents and ate more when the parents used what the researchers termed "neutral prompts:" for example, "Don't forget to eat your meat." What didn't work were threats to withhold food ("If you don't eat your vegetables, you won't get dessert") or play privileges ("If you don't eat your meat, you don't get to play Nintendo").

When children complied with their parents' strategies, about 40% ate moderately to substantially more than they might have otherwise. That's rather shocking when you know that other research in pediatrics has shown that children will naturally eat what their bodies require - and that parents can damage this ability by trying to control their child's eating.

What this means for you:

If you have children, don't use food as a reward or a threat. Provide healthy foods to your children and simply determine when to serve them, allowing your child to choose which and how much of a selection of healthy foods they will eat ("Would you like carrots or broccoli today?"). It may mean a little more work for you at mealtime, but your reward will be healthier children.

First posted: December 5, 2006