Family Meals Help Cut Risk of Childhood Obesity

Study Shows Family Mealtimes Have a Healthy Effect on Children’s Nutrition

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on May 02, 2011
From the WebMD Archives

May 2, 2011 -- Regular family meals improve children’s nutrition, reduce the risk of childhood obesity, and encourage healthy eating habits, a study suggests.

The results show children and adolescents who share at least three family meals per week are more likely to be a healthy weight and less likely to have disordered eating (an early sign of potential eating disorders) than those who shared mealtimes less frequently.

The study is published in Pediatrics.

Researchers say it's the first study to look at the link between shared family meals and children's nutritional health.

"Overall, families that eat 5 or more meals together have children who are ~25% less likely to encounter nutritional health issues than children who eat [less than or equal to] 1 meal with their families," write researcher Amber J. Hammons, PhD, of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and colleagues in Pediatrics. "Shared family meals seem to operate as a protective factor for overweight, unhealthy eating, and disordered eating."

Family Meals Foster Healthy Habits

In their review, researchers analyzed the results of 17 recent studies on eating patterns and child nutrition involving more than 182,000 children and adolescents.

The results showed that shared family mealtimes consistently had a healthy effect on child nutrition and eating habits.

For example, the pooled results from the three studies that examined family meals and disordered eating showed that adolescents from families that share at least five meals per week are 35% less likely to engage in disordered eating than those who not. Disordered eating for study purposes included bingeing/purging, taking diet pills, self-induced vomiting, using laxatives or diuretics, fasting, eating very little, skipping meals, and smoking cigarettes to lose weight.

"For children or adolescents with disordered eating, mealtimes may provide a setting in which parents can recognize early signs and take steps to prevent detrimental patterns from turning into full-blown eating disorders," write the researchers. "In addition, family meals are predictive of family-connectedness, which may encourage adolescents to talk about such issues within their families."

Among the five studies that looked at family meals and nutrition, the results showed children who shared mealtimes at least three times per week were 24% more likely to eat healthy foods and have healthy eating habits than those who shared family meals less often.

Finally, the eight studies that compared weight status and family meals showed that children who ate at least three family meals per week were 12% less likely to be overweight.