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VNA of Care New England
by Woods M

Family Meals May Decrease Risk of Obesity in Teens

The rate of children who have obesity has more than doubled in the past 30 years. Children and adolescents who are overweight are also more likely to be overweight as adults leading to increased risk of health complications such as high blood pressure and cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, asthma, sleep apnea, and depression. Overweight and obesity are often the result of dietary, physical, and social changes and prevention may require addressing more than one of these factors.
Previous research has found that meals taken together as a family can have a significant impact on teens. Researchers from Minneapolis wanted to examine if family meals affect the risk of overweight or obesity in early adulthood. The trial, published in The Journal of Pediatrics, found that family meals during adolescence may be protective against the development of overweight and obesity in young adulthood.

About the Study

The study used data from a large research project called Project Eating and Activity in Teens-III. The study used survey to collect information such as dietary intake, physical activity, and weight control behaviors, among Minneapolis and St. Paul-area adolescents. Adolescents were also asked how often all, or most, of their family ate a meal together. The adolescents completed the surveys in middle or high school and then completed another follow-up survey ten years later when they were between the ages of 19-31. About 50% of participants completed the follow up survey.
The study found that the adolescents who had a family meal at least once or twice a week had lower risk of being overweight or obese in young adulthood than adolescents who never had family meals. Family meals had the strongest protective effect among black young adults.

How Does This Affect You?

In observational studies such as this one, researchers do not work to control or introduce factors but instead observe a select group to try to find connections. Researchers can not control other factors that may also impact the outcome. This type of study can help find potential links between factors but it can not determine cause and effect. Additionally, the results of this study are based on only two questionnaires over a 10 year period. There may have been several dietary changes during this time that were not accounted for at the survey times. There was also a high dropout rate which may affect the reliability of the study outcomes.
Although more studies will be needed to confirm the link between obesity and family meals, we already know that there are several other benefits to family meals including:
  • Promotion of healthier eating habits, since meals at home are often more nutritious
  • Modeling healthy eating behaviors for their children
  • Promoting bonding among family members, which may give children the sense of security needed to regulate their own eating behaviors
Given previous research on family meal time and this study, it is reasonable to believe that family meal time can have an influence on obesity rates in teens and young adults. Fortunately, this study found benefits in as little as 1-2 family meals per week. Try to find at least one day of the week that you can regularly schedule as family meal day and stick to it. Have teens or children participate in age-appropriate meal preparation steps so they can begin to see how to build healthy meals.

RESOURCES

Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
http://familydoctor.org
Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics
http://www.healthychildren.org

References

Berge JM, Wall M, et al. The protective role of family meals for youth obesity: 10-year longitudinal associations. J Pediatr. 2014 Sep 27. Available at: http://www.jpeds.com/article/S0022-3476%2814%2900777-X/fulltext. Accessed October 8, 2014.
Childhood obesity facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/obesity/facts.htm. Updated August 13, 2014. Accessed October 8, 2014.

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