(Reuters Health) – Teens whose families have dinner together are more likely to make healthy food choices, even when children and parents have problems with communicating and connecting emotionally, a new study found.
Family dinners are more often associated with healthy eating among teenagers and young adults, even when families are not too close and have difficulty managing their daily routines, the researchers report in the JAMA Network Open.
"The big thing is that outside and outside family functions, family food is still important when you think about food intake for teenagers," said lead study author Kathryn Walton, who is a doctoral student at the University of Guelph, Canada, when she did research.
"Many, many studies have looked at the benefits of family food, and repeatedly they have found that this causes teenagers to eat more fruits and vegetables and fast food and sweet drinks," said Walton, now a researcher at the Children's Hospital -Children in Toronto.
But, he said, "Critics have suggested that family dysfunction can interfere with the benefits of family food because it may be more difficult for low-functioning families to arrange and prepare food or have healthy food available at home …"
Walton and his colleagues analyzed data about teenage boys and young men and women who participated in a long-term Health Nursing Study. Walton's team included data on 2,728 young people aged 14 to 24 who lived with their parents in 2011.
Family function is measured through a series of nine statements that must be assessed on a 4-point scale, including: Individuals who are accepted for who they are; I feel like I can talk about my problem or share a problem; I feel like I was heard in my family.
The researchers found that the more often teenagers and young adults had dinner with their parents, the more their overall food included more fruits and vegetables and fast food and sweet drinks.
The difference in healthy food intake is small but statistically significant.
The important question that remains, Walton said, is how to get more families sharing food. He offered several suggestions to help make this happen. First, families who don't eat together can start small, with just one meal a week. "Then they can build on that success."
Also, it's easier to arrange if parents don't put too much pressure on themselves to make dinner a "big deal," Walton said. "This can be easier if you only take a bag of salad and use frozen vegetables, which are as healthy as the fresh ones."
Another strategy: the task of preparing teenage meals. "This is very important in a very busy family," Walton said. "A lot of hands make light work. There are also additional benefits to learning important food preparation skills."
"It's nice to hear more evidence that eating together, along with a decrease in risk behavior and correcting mental health problems, such as depression, can also be beneficial for overall health," Dr. Mara Minguez from New York-Presbyterian / Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, who was not involved in the study.
The only caveat, said Minguez, was that research was carried out on a large proportion of the white population and highly educated. "I work in New York City where there are many different cultures and I wonder if findings can be generalized."
Many of the poorer families may have difficulty managing dinner because parents often work late, Minguez said. This is where the compromise comes in. "A family can eat later, maybe even at 8 or 9," Minguez said. "It's just a matter of understanding why this is so important."
"I like the idea of something simple for families to implement that has a big impact on health," said Dr. Tammy Brady of Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, who was not involved in the study.
It would be great to see similar research in a more diverse population, Brady said, but for now, researchers have shown "that part of family functionality is not very important."
SOURCE: bit.ly/2DCWQxD JAMA Network Open, online November 21, 2018.