Why Families Who Eat Together Are Healthier

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A new review of data adds to the evidence that families who eat together most often are healthier.

Problem is, many families aren’t sitting down together at home very often at all. According to the research team from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, about 40% of the average family’s budget is spent eating out, typically not together. This is particularly concerning because eating out is linked with poorer food choices — restaurant and prepared foods tend to be much fattier, saltier and higher in calories than meals made at home.

Increasingly, obesity and public health experts believe that such eating behavior fuels Americans’ risk of obesity and nutrition deficiencies. To find out more, Rutgers researchers reviewed 68 studies on the issue. They looked specifically at studies that measured the frequency and atmosphere of family meals and compared that to the quality of children’s food consumption and risk of weight gain.

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The data suggested that family mealtime has a wealth of health benefits, especially for children. Kids who ate more meals together with their families tended to eat more fruits, vegetables, fiber, calcium-rich foods, and vitamins, and ate less junk food.

Social improvements were also linked to frequency of family meals. Teens who ate at the family table more often were more likely to show fewer signs of depression and feel that their family was more supportive, compared with teens who dined less often at home.

“It is very interesting that something as simple as frequently eating meals together may contribute to so many different types of benefits to all family members,” says study author Jennifer Martin-Biggers, a doctoral student in the department of nutritional sciences at Rutgers.

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Children in families who frequently shared meals also tended to have a lower body mass index than those who didn’t, although the research did not find a conclusive between family meals and obesity.

Researchers found also that it’s not just the time spent together or the act of consuming food simultaneously that matters. The quality of the interactions are important too. The data showed that families who spent time watching TV together or ate fast food out together did not have the same improved dietary intakes as families who ate meals together at home.

“We believe that spending that family time together may provide a platform allowing parents and children to interact and for parents to teach children healthy habits,” says Martin-Biggers. “The increased focus on food and eating may be a mechanism behind the improved diets families tend to show when they eat together.”

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The authors note that there’s no shortage of nutritional information out there for parents who want to make better choices for their families. But what busy parent has the time to sift through the research? To help, the Rutgers team says it is creating at-a-glance graphics based on their findings that will visually synthesize key nutritional and healthy-eating info in an appealing way for the public.

The new research was presented on Monday at the American Society for Nutrition’s Scientific Sessions in San Diego, Calif.