Battling Childhood Obesity a Few Minutes Each Meal

How much difference can a few minutes make?

Maybe enough to help keep a child from becoming obese.

When low-income families dedicate a handful of extra minutes to regular family mealtimes, it measurably enhances a child’s ability to achieve and maintain a normal weight, according to a recent University of Illinois study.

“Children whose families engaged with each other over a 20-minute meal four times a week weighed significantly less than kids who left the table after 15 to 17 minutes. Over time, those extra minutes per meal add up and become really powerful,” said Barbara H. Fiese, director of the U of I’s Family Resiliency Program.

In the study, researchers observed 200 family mealtimes, testing the cumulative effects of socioeconomic factors and mealtime behaviors of families with children in elementary school. They noted the importance families place on sharing a meal, scheduling family meals and assigning special meaning to the practice.

At the neighborhood level, a high concentration of children living in poverty was associated with greater risks for an overweight or obese childhood in the home, Fiese said. The study found that low income children’s participation in routine, high quality family mealtimes made a difference in their weight status.

“Three to four extra minutes per meal made a healthy weight more likely,” Fiese said.

Quality of interaction also mattered. Families who said that shared mealtimes are an important part of family life and have special meaning for them were less likely to have an obese child. And families who talked more together and interacted more positively during the meal were more likely to have healthy-weight children.

Low-income parents, however, are more likely to face greater obstacles to making regular commitments to family mealtime. Many are pressed for time, meaning that planning ahead, budgeting, shopping, preparing a healthy meal, and then sitting down to enjoy it with their children is challenging, Fiese said.

Teaching low-income families how to make the most of family mealtimes is a workable intervention, Fiese noted. “This is something we can target and teach. It’s much more difficult to change such factors as marital status, maternal education or neighborhood poverty.”

First 5 LA understands the need to educate families about the importance of good nutrition. As part of countywide efforts to combat early childhood obesity, we want to increase access to opportunities that promote a healthy lifestyle. That is why First 5 LA is currently funding several nutrition and obesity-prevention related initiatives targeting young children.

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