Can obesity be prevented by daily dinners with the family?

Want to protect your children against being overweight or even obese as they attain adulthood? Consider frequent family meals during their adolescence, researchers suggest.

Family meals that more often include vegetables, fruits, whole grains and calcium can lessen the chances of adolescents becoming obese during their adult lives, researchers from the University of Minnesota and Columbia University suggest.

The researchers analyzed data collected in a long-term study known as Project EAT (Eating and Activity among Teens) that examined weight-related variables among adolescents, including food intake, levels of physical activity and practice of behaviors influencing weight control.

The frequency of family meals, even having as few as one to two family meals a week during adolescence, is significantly linked with reduced chances of overweight or obesity at the 10-year follow-up point, the researchers found.

"It is important to identify modifiable factors in the home environment, such as family meals, that can protect against overweight/obesity through the transition to adulthood," says Minnesota researcher Jerica M. Berge.

Among the adolescents who reported that their family never ate meals together, 60 percent were determined to be overweight and 29 were obese at the study's 10-year point, compared to the 51 percent and 22 percent in the overall study.

The protective effect of family meals could be a factor of the emotional connections between family members, the researchers suggest, and the meal is more likely to consist of healthful food.

In addition, they provide the opportunity for adolescents to be exposed to a parental modeling of more healthy eating behaviors, they researchers said in reporting their study in The Journal of Pediatrics.

"Informing parents that even having one or two family meals per week may protect their child from overweight or obesity in young adulthood would be important," Berge says.

Although the study suggested a more robust protective effect of frequent family meals among black young adults compared with their white contemporaries, the limited data suggests the influence of family meals on avoiding adult obesity spans all races and ethnicities, the researches said.

The new findings are in line with some previous research. In 2013, a study led by Cornell University found that eating dinner with your family -- and leaving the TV off for the duration of the meal, until everyone is finished -- was linked to lower body mass.

The positive socialization skills that family dinners tend to encourage possibly hold down the urge or need to overeat, Cornell researcher Brian Wansink said.

"The ritual of where one eats and how long one eats seems to be the largest driver," he said.

"Family meals and their rituals might be an underappreciated battleground to fight obesity," he concluded.

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