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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.

Grandparents also important to children's weight
The obesity epidemic is not limited to Western countries; China's growing economic development has had its impact on that country's waistline, as well. Just as in Western countries, children who are overweight or obese in China are likely to become overweight or obese adults, with all the attendant health risks.

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. 


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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.

A recent study in the journal Appetite takes an initial look at family meals and family weight (2011;57(2):517-524). The researchers recruited 103 families who were visiting Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, in order to attend campus tours. (This meant that at least one person in the family unit was a young adult.) The family groups averaged just three people, so 327 persons participated in the study.

The individuals were asked to respond to a questionnaire which asked basic demographic questions such as race, education level, and class, then height and weight. Then they were asked to identify their role in the family (father, mother, sister, brother, other) and how often the entire family ate a meal together in a typical week. Further, were these family meals at home, or outside the home? The questionnaires of families were linked so that their responses could be considered as a family unit as well as separately.

The researchers used the questionnaires to calculate Body Mass Index (BMI) for each individual and then for the family unit as a whole. They then correlated the reported frequency of the family meals, both those eaten at home as well as those eaten away from home, with the BMI of each family unit and each family role.

Not surprisingly, they found that the more often the family ate together outside the home, the higher the family's group BMI would be. More family meals eaten together within the home tended to mean a lower group BMI.

When they looked at each family role they found that this tendency held true on the individual level as well. However, this tendency was strongest for fathers, who generally speaking reported eating the fewest family meals at home and tended to eat away from home more frequently.

What this means for you

This is an interesting study but has some serious drawbacks, including its small sample size (number of people participating in the study) and the fact that the people participating in the study tended to be white, well-educated and fairly well-to-do. Further, this type of study is known as a cross-sectional study, which looks at a snapshot in time rather than following a group of people over a long period of time. This means that while eating more meals at home may be related to lower BMI, that does not necessarily prove that one causes the other. That said, it does suggest that eating together as a family, at home, isn't just important for children - it's likely important for the whole family's weight.

First posted: August 24, 2011