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Did you know that the dining environment itself is an influencer of your weight status? This is the finding of a recent study by Dr. Brian Wansink and Dr. Ellen van Kleef, who examined the relationship between everyday family dinner rituals and the BMI of 190 parents and 148 children. The body mass index (BMI) is a measure of body fat that compares weight to height. Studies have shown that lifestyle factors such as physical activity, eating breakfast every day, and income are associated with this frequently used measure of weight status.
Parents participating in the study completed a questionnaire regarding the whole family’s mealtime habits. They were asked a broad range of questions concerning how many days they engage in mealtime activities, such as discussing their day, during a typical week. After filling in the questionnaire, the weight and height of both parents and children were recorded.
These ‘dinner rituals’ correlated with both the parents and the child’s BMI’s. The higher the BMI of parents, the more frequent they indicated to eat with the TV on. Eating at the table in the dining room or kitchen was linked to lower BMIs for both children and parents. Girls who helped parents prepare dinner were more likely to have a higher BMI, but there is no such relationship among boys. Yet boys who had a more social dinner experience tended to have lower BMI, especially in families where everyone stayed at the table until everyone finished eating. This proved true in parents as well.
The link between BMI and these dinner-time habits does not necessarily mean that one thing leads directly to another. A heavier girl who helps out with dinner might want an active role in dinner, for example. What is important, however, is that these results underline the importance of the social aspect of sharing a meal as a family on BMI, since watching television, for example, correlated with higher BMI in the parents. These interactions may replace overeating with stronger, more positive feelings.
Although the reasons for the links are not clear, family meals and their rituals may be an underappreciated battleground to prevent obesity. Where one eats and how long one eats seems to be a driver of the weight one gains. Such behavior may be related to less distracted eating or more supervision. 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. 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!
• Download paper from the SSRN (the Social Science Research Network)
Van Kleef, Ellen and Brian Wansink. (2014). Dinner Rituals That Correlate with Child and Adult BMI. Obesity, 22(5), E91-95. doi: 10.1002/oby.20629
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