Feb. 4, 2011 -- Eating together at family meals may be an especially healthy habit for children with asthma.
A new study suggests children with asthma who spend quality time with their families by eating together are healthier than those who eat alone, while watching TV, or while others are busy chatting or texting on cell phones.
Previous studies have already shown that family meals can improve the well-being of children and teens and make them less likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors like substance abuse or eating disorders. But this study suggests eating together is also directly related to health in children with chronic illnesses like asthma.
Researchers found the key factor linked to children’s health was not the food but the quality of social interactions during family meals. Specifically, children with asthma in families that switched off the television and other electronic devices and engaged in conversation while eating together had better lung function, less severe asthma symptoms, and a better overall quality of life.
“Although mealtimes lasted on average only 18 minutes, we found significant relations between time spent in specific forms of mealtime interactions and child health variables,” write researcher Barbara H. Fiese, professor of human and community development at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and colleagues in Child Development.
“When family members were more engaged with each other and demonstrated an interest in daily events during their mealtime conversations, child asthma symptoms were less likely to be severe and adherence to the medical regimen was likely to be greater,” they write. “When mealtimes were characterized by more distractions, asthma symptoms were more pronounced.”
The study reported on 200 children with asthma between the ages of 5 and 12 who had persistent asthma. Researchers videotaped the family meal and observed how family members interacted.
They found the family meals lasted an average of 18.7 minutes with a range of 8.3 to 46.3 minutes. The bulk of interactions were divided between some form of activity like getting up and returning to the table, talking on the phone or watching TV, or communication about personal events.
The results showed children with asthma in families that spent more time on communication, especially positive communication, while eating together were more likely to adhere to their child’s medication regimen as well as have better asthma control than those who engaged in a lot of activity and critical communication.
“It may be that mealtime conversations afford one opportunity to observe wheezing, coughing, and to check in on whether the child has taken his or her medication that day,” write the researchers. “These brief encounters may have long-term consequences for the child’s health.”