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We gather together… to eat this pot roast! 05/03/2011

Posted by ALT in Children's Mental Health, Mental Health Policy and Inititatives.
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(and to prevent childhood obesity)   

What am I talking about?  Something positive in the anti-childhood obesity world, for once! 

No, not THISNote to childhood obesity activists: kids don’t like being locked in school buildings, with no windows and very little self-determination; they want out!  So if you associate exercising with being inside the school—well, that’s just self-defeating.

Even a scantily-clad, flouncy Beyonce isn't enough to make a school cafeteria a fun place to work out.

I’m talking about the most recent edition of the journal PEDIATRICS, which includes a pretty impressive study (or meta-analysis of previously conducted studies, to be more exact) that points to an intuitive (but very encouraging!) conclusion: the more meals a family shares together, the less likely the kids are to have issues with obesity or “disordered eating.”

Disordered Eating, or if you want to get all DSM-IV with it, “Eating Disorder NOS (Not Otherwise Specified),” includes things like: bingeing/purging, deliberate vomiting, excessive fasting, missing meals, taking diet pills, smoking as a weight loss strategy, using diuretics or laxatives… essentially, any excessive misuse of food to resolve emotional problems.

  

Statistics and Such

The study authors compared the effects of sharing 3 or more meals per week versus 1 or none, using a total sample size of 182,836 children and adolescents (ages 2.8-17.3 years).  When it comes to statistical analysis, that’s HUGE!  For those of you who like to throw numbers and percentages around, here’s a bit of ammunition:

(As compared to families that shared less than 3 meals per week, children in families that shared 3 or more meals per week were…)

  • 12% less likely to be overweight
  • Had a  20% reduction in the odds of eating unhealthy foods
  • Had a 24% increase in the odds of eating healthy foods and maintaining healthy dietary habits (like eating breakfast, eating fruits and vegetables, and taking a multivitamin).

Additionally, children and adolescents in families that shared 5 or more meals together per week were 35% less likely to engage in disordered eating than those who did not.

The study looked at different ages, races, and socioeconomic statuses and found that, for the most part, there wasn’t a significant difference between these categories. 

A family meal is much more likely to be a home-cooked meal (as opposed to pre-packaged) – so nutritionally it’s a lot better.  What’s more, the dinner table is a place to air concerns about the day, share funny tidbits, to joke around and just have some quality time together.  It’s a place to address some of the emotional problems that might lead to “disordered eating” in the first place.  I think we can all agree that getting love from your family is much more satisfying than getting it from a piece of cake.

... sure you do.

  

Families have the power!

The best part about this study is it puts the power to achieve balance/wellness where it belongs: with families and the love they hold for one another.  Institutions have nothing to do with this!  They can’t touch it! 

I’d bet good money that if they did a similar study of kids who shared at least 3 meals with their friendly area social worker, or perhaps their principal, or psychiatrist, or probation officer, the results would be different.  Having a meal with an authority figure that makes you feel uncomfortable and restricted (and is billing you for their time) would probably give you indigestion!   

So this study’s policy recommendations – quite simply, that families eat meals together (I’d also add: and schools get the HELL out of the way!) is exactly the direction I’d like to see the so-called “campaign against childhood obesity” go.  Let’s keep moving towards intuitive (some might even say obvious), family-focused actions that are not blame-based. 

For example, instead of schools recruiting parents to guard the entrances of corner stores to stop kids from buying junk food (literally calling them “foot soldiers in a battle over children’s diets”) — what if kids were given a little more time in the morning to eat breakfast with their parents and had enough time to go home and eat lunch, too?   Instead of school officials blaming parents for their lack of nutritional knowledge, why can’t we recognize that a meal eaten together, as a family, has a certain amount of [mental and emotional] nutritional value independent of the kind of food served (which will nevertheless almost certainly be more wholesome than what they’re serving up in school lunches)?

Ah, the simple things in life!  Love, family, togetherness.  Away-from-institution-ness

I think achieving wellness, as individuals, communities, and as a society, is something we can do without Michelle Obama and her cadre of “experts” convening conferences here, there, and everywhere; without intereference from schools or any of the other “helping professions” so bent on justifying their supposed “expertise” and keeping their jobs.

I think we can do it, quite successfully, just by using a little common sense and by reclaiming some of those aforementioned simple things in life.

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