Could spending three more minutes at the dinner table really help lower childhood obesity? According to a new study published in the journal Economics and Human Biology, more time equals less weight.
Scientists at the University of Illinois looked at ways low-income families could help their kids achieve and maintain a healthy weight. They discovered family mealtimes together could be linked to the kid’s weight.
The study involved 200 family mealtimes. Children who regularly sat down and had their meals with the family were more likely to have a normal weight than those who cut mealtimes short. Even three minutes more at the table had an impact.
"Children whose families engaged with each other over a 20-minute meal four times a week weighed significantly less than kids who left the table after 15 to 17 minutes. Over time, those extra minutes per meal add up and become really powerful," study author Barbara Fiese, director of the University of Illinois' Family Resiliency Program, said in a statement.
The findings suggest that families who have a positive attitude about mealtimes together and consider it an important part of family life, were less likely to have obese or overweight children. Behaviors such as talking and interacting together also seemed to contribute to the children’s healthier weight.
Flese noted that teaching low-income families how to make the most of mealtimes together was worthwhile in helping families make the necessary changes needed to combat obesity.
"This is something we can target and teach. It's much more difficult to change such factors as marital status, maternal education, or neighborhood poverty," she said.
Our changing society also offers new challenges for families.
"It's also important to recognize the increasing diversity of families and their sometimes complex living arrangements that may challenge their abilities to plan ahead and arrange a single time to communicate with each other," Flese added.
The study took into account the difficulty low-income families may have in accessing healthy foods in some neighborhood grocery stores. However, even after accounting for these risk factors, they found that regular, high quality, family mealtimes made a significant difference to children's weight.
"Three to four extra minutes per meal made a healthy weight more likely," Flese concluded.
Other studies have also pointed out the important role family meals together can play in a child’s future physical and emotional development. What was once a common occurrence is now less common with scheduled after-school activities, single parent family households and in many cases - both parents working full time. For some families, fast food take out has usurped healthy home cooked meals and not only are the adults putting on the pounds, but the kids are too.
Flese hopes that this study and others like it will encourage families to take the time to prepare healthy meals and eat together.