Families That Eat Together, Stay Healthy Together: Why making family meal time a top priority is good for kids and their long term health.

Jessica Morgan, MD

It’s no longer news that obesity and all its related chronic diseases are plaguing the US and a good portion of the rest of world. The U.S. has the highest rates of overweight and obesity of all high income countries. Currently 30% of the American population is classified as obese. By 2030, it is estimated that this rate will be closer to 50%. Obesity now affects children in alarming amounts. Roughly 20% of U.S. children ages 2-19 years are obese. These statistics effect us all in ways you may not think of- close to 30% of young people in the U.S. are now too heavy to qualify for military service. Childhood obesity is considered to be one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century and for good reason. Obesity is harmful to a child’s heart and lungs, muscles and bones, kidneys and digestive tracts, as well as hormones that control blood sugar and puberty. Kids who are overweight are much more likely to remain overweight or obese into adulthood. It is estimated that one in three children born today will develop diabetes.  But there is good news!! Obesity and all of its disease friends (diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, cancer, etc) are preventable and, with a lot of hard work, reversible.

As a pediatrician and nutrition coach, my goal is to empower families and communities to prevent chronic diseases and reverse this epidemic of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and stress. The change starts with you, your family, and your community. What you decide to put on your fork, how you spend your family’s “free time” can promote health and happiness or it can promote disease- not just for you and your loved ones, but for your neighbors, your community, your country, the food industry, agriculture, marketing practices, and the environment. Be the change. Start at home.

The food families keep at home and how families share meals influence what children eat and how much of it they eat. If you keep fresh fruit and vegetables at home, chances are kids will eat more of them than if you didn’t keep the fridge stocked. If you keep soda, chips, and sugary snacks at home, they’ll eat more of those disease-promoting food-like products. It’s nearly impossible for the primitively wired parts of our brains to resist sugar and fat. Don’t tempt yourself or your kids. Keep it out of the house.

A century ago, 98% of all meals were eaten at home. Now, that number is less than fifty percent. On average, family meals happen about 3 times per week, last less than 20 minutes and are spent watching TV or texting. The average kid spends 7.5 hours a day in front of a screen. Overweight kids eat half of their meals in front of the TV, often being exposed to billions of dollars in advertising for junk food. Think you don’t have enough time to cook? More people in this country spend more time watching cooking shows on television than they actually spending cooking. Go on a TV diet and use that extra time to prepare healthy foods.

Eating together as a family allows for time to communicate and connect with those most important to you. Make dinner special- create a place to sit down together, set the table with thoughtfulness and care, have the whole family get involved. Research shows that children who have regular meals with their parents do better in school and have healthier peer relationships. They also are 42% less likely to drink, 50% less likely to smoke cigarettes, and 66% less likely to smoke pot than those who don’t gather round the table with their folks. Family dinners also reduce the risk of obesity, anorexia, bulimia, and depression.

Dinner doesn’t have to be complicated or take a long time to prepare. Here’s a quick and easy recipe to try:

Salmon and Roasted Brussel Sprouts

Pro tip: Add brown rice or another whole grain to round out the meal. Try a different vegetable to roast like broccoli or carrots. Have fun with seasonings. Experiment with roasted red pepper flakes, basil, oregano or rosemary.

For great ideas on making family dinners more enjoyable and engaging for the younger audience, checkout thefamilydinnerproject.org.

Enjoy your dinner, your family and your health! In the coming blog posts, I’ll be going more in depth about circumstances contributing to society’s poor health; how to prevent chronic disease and stay healthy; and how to make an impact in your homes, communities, and beyond. Good health starts with you!

 

References:
Gruber KJ, Haldeman LA. Using the family to combat childhood and adult obesity. Prev Chronic Dis. 2009; 6:A106.
Larson NI, Neumakr-Sztainer D, Jannan PJ, Story M. Family meals during adolescence are associated with higher quality and healthful meal patterns during young adulthood. J Am Diet Assoc. 2007; 107:1502-10.
Sen B. Frequency of family dinner and adolescent body weight status: evidence from the national longitudinal survey of youth, 1997. Obesity. 2006; 14:2266-76
Taveras EM, Rifas-Shiman SL, Berkey CS, Rockett HR, Field AE, Frazier AL, et al. Family dinner and adolescent overweight. Obes. Res. 2005; 13:900-6
Gable S, Chang Y, Krull JL. Television watching and frequency of family meals are predictive of overweight onset and persistence in a national sample of school-aged children. J AM Diet Assoc. 2007;107:53-61.