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Family meals promote healthier weights, eating behaviors in children

Barbara Fiese
Photo courtesy
Family Resiliency Center

Barbara H. Fiese, a professor of human development and family studies, says family meal can be one of the most powerful times for promoting health.

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6/20/2011 | Sharita Forrest, Education/Social Work Editor | 217-244-1072; slforres@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Eating meals with family may be the best recipe for promoting healthy eating behaviors and body weights in children and adolescents, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Illinois.

Amber Hammons
Amber Hammons, a postdoctoral research associate, conducted a study on family meals with her colleague Barbara Fiese. | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Children who eat five or more shared meals with family members per week are 25 percent less likely to develop nutritional health issues, and have healthier dietary and eating patterns, including higher consumption of fruits and vegetables and decreased consumption of unhealthy foods, the study indicated. Just three or more shared meals with family each week reduces the likelihood that children will have eating disorders or be overweight and increases the chances that they will maintain weights in the normal range.

“Most family meals only last 18-20 minutes but can be one of the most powerful times for promoting health,” said Barbara H. Fiese, a professor of human development and family studies, who has been studying family dynamics and health behaviors for more than 20 years. “The opportunity to protect children’s health can be accomplished in four meals or 80 minutes – that’s less than three 30-minute TV shows.”

Fiese conducted the study, a meta-analysis that appears in the June issue of the journal Pediatrics, with Amber Hammons, a postdoctoral research associate. They are in the department of human and community development in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at Illinois.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends regular family meals as a protective factor against childhood obesity, and numerous studies have associated shared family mealtimes with a variety of positive child health outcomes, including reduced risks of eating disorders and substance abuse.

Most of the previous studies focused solely on the sheer number of times that the participants ate together “and don’t tell us what happened at the table,” nor did they distinguish between meals eaten at home and meals elsewhere, Fiese said.

The U. of I. researchers analyzed data from 17 studies that pertained to children’s weight, food consumption and eating patterns to investigate how strongly these factors were linked to sharing family meals. The aggregate sample comprised 182,000 children and adolescents that ranged from 2-17 years of age.

Americans’ ever-expanding waistlines, dependence on fast food and hectic lifestyles are decried almost daily on news and talk shows, and in magazines, books and movies, lending the impression that healthy, home-cooked meals are a thing of the past. Fiese disagrees.

“I have to continually fight the myth that families don’t eat at home together,” Fiese said. About 75 percent of families eat together at home four times a week, although the frequency varies according to families’ socioeconomic status and decreases when children reach adolescence, Fiese said.

Children who regularly eat meals with their families are more likely to consume fruits and vegetables, Hammons said.

“That was a little surprising to me,” Fiese said. “We always knew there was the potential for an association, but we didn’t know the strength of the finding.

 “If parents are able to plan ahead and organize mealtimes, they may be more likely to eat fruits and vegetables,” Fiese said. “We can’t say with any certainty that it’s the shared mealtime that’s causing it, but we know from other work that’s been done that families who eat at home tend to eat more fruits and vegetables than families who eat out.”

Nonetheless, Fiese said that she is often surprised by the quantities of soda, french fries and candy that toddlers are being allowed to consume.

And for children with chronic asthma, healthy parent-child communication during meals seems to enhance their overall wellness, according to a recent study in which Fiese and her co-investigators observed 200 family mealtimes. They found that positive communication between adults and children during meals reduced asthma symptoms and promoted better health and quality of life in children with persistent asthma. Parents who engaged in less positive talk while eating also were less likely to adhere to their children’s medical protocols, the report indicated.

The asthma study, which appeared in the February issue of the journal Child Development, is one component of the Family Resiliency Center’s Strong Kids program, a multidisciplinary investigation into the roles that family members and communities, childcare providers, culture, and media play in childhood weight and health issues.

About a dozen U. of I. researchers, Fiese and Hammons among them, are studying 400 families with preschool-age children that live in small urban communities in Illinois, exploring issues such as parent-child relationships as potential moderators of health practices, families’ health literacy as it relates to weight management and body image, the impact of food marketing and promotion on food choices, and the interaction of genetic, social and behavioral risk factors.

Fiese and Hammons are working with Latino families to develop a six-week intervention that promotes healthier eating through shared family meals and community-based activities such as nutrition education classes and recipe exchanges. Findings from that study should be available in the fall.

At Illinois, Fiese is the Pampered Chef Endowed Chair, the director of the Family Resiliency Center and holds an appointment in the department of psychology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

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