Pass the peas! How family meals benefit asthmatic kids

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Gathering round the table for dinner can sometimes be a challenge for the harried modern family, yet a growing body of evidence suggests that sitting down for sustenance and social time can have long-term health benefits—notably including a reduced risk for childhood obesity. And a recent study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry adds to the list of reasons why shoehorning family meals into schedules crammed with ballet lessons and soccer practice can have benefits beyond fostering family conversation. According to a small study led by Barbara H. Fiese, professor of human and community development at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for asthmatic children frequent family meals can help reduce separation anxiety and stress, which can exacerbate asthma symptoms.

In this recent study, Fiese and colleagues followed 63 children between the ages of 9–12 with chronic asthma for a period of six weeks. The researchers began with two hypotheses—that separation anxiety influences asthma symptom severity, and that routine family meals can lessen this anxiety by cultivating a sense of support and security, minimizing stress and helping improve lung function. At the study’s onset, children’s mental and physical health were assessed using questionnaires, interviews and spirometry tests. Within a week of the initial lab visit, researchers als filmed a family meal in each child’s home. Throughout the study period, researchers tracked children’s use of asthma medications.

Fiese and colleagues found that supportive family mealtimes did make a difference toward reducing signs of separation anxiety, and that, as a result, asthmatic children’s lung function was improved. The sense of security and comfort reinforced during family meal times can make a big difference for children who suffer from separation anxiety, Fiese says, and because mealtime is a routine part of the day, it offers consistent opportunity to build trust and communication.