Brett Smith for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Every night, millions of American families sit down to eat dinner – where they do it could be an indicator of their physical health. According to a new study published in the journal Obesity, adults and children who sit down together to eat supper as a family tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI) than those who don’t.
In the study, two researchers from Cornell University looked at the relationship between daily family dinner habits and the BMI of 190 parents and nearly 150 children. Other studies have shown that lifestyle factors like physical activity and income are associated with BMI.
Adult participants in the study completed a survey on their entire family’s mealtime habits. They answered a wide range of questions about mealtime activities, such as talking about someone’s work or school day, during a normal week. After the surveys were completed, researchers calculated participants’ BMI, which is based on height and weight.
The Cornell researchers then correlated the BMIs with mealtime habits to see if any patterns emerged. They found that the higher the BMI of parents, the more likely they were to eat with the TV on. Eating at either a dining room or kitchen table in the home was associated with lower BMIs for both children and adults.
The researchers also found that girls who assisted their parents with dinner prep tended to have a higher BMI, but no such relationship was seen for boys. Boys who were reported as having a more social dinner experience were more likely to have lower BMI, especially in families where everyone sat at the communal table until everyone finished eating. This relationship was found in parents as well.
“The ritual of where one eats and how long one eats seems to be the largest driver,” said Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. “In fact, eating anywhere other than the kitchen or dining room was related to higher BMIs in both parents and in children.”
The Cornell team emphasized that they found links between BMI and mealtime habits does not necessarily signify any cause-and-effect relationship. They added that their results emphasize the importance of the social sharing of a meal as a family. These familial interactions may have some kind of positive psychological effect on overeating habits, the researchers speculated.
In a press release, the Cornell food lab said family meals and their rituals might be an overlooked battleground for fighting obesity.
“If you want to strengthen your family ties and, at the same time keep a slimmer figure, consider engaging in a more interactive dinner experience,” the lab suggested. “A good place to start would be to eat together with the television off and then asking the kids to list their highlights of the day. After all, the dinner table does not just have to be a place where food gets eaten!”
Some previous studies have indicated that children begin to develop their social skills around a dinner table, providing one more reason to pick up a communal dinner habit.