Researchers from The Ohio State University have found that adults who said they never watched TV or videos during family meals had significantly lower odds of obesity compared with those who flipped on Netflix or the TV news during mealtimes. They were surprised to find that how often people sit down to a family meal didn’t appear to make much difference.
“How often you are eating family meals may not be the most important thing. It could be that what you are doing during these meals matters more,” said lead researcher Rachel Tumin.
“This highlights the importance of thinking critically about what is going on during those meals, and whether there are opportunities to turn the TV off or do more of your own food preparation,” she said.
The structure of family meals may be as or more important than their frequency — important information for adults looking for ways to stay at a healthy weight, said Tumin’s collaborator, Sarah Anderson of Ohio State’s College of Public Health.
“Regardless of family meal frequency, obesity was less common when meals were eaten with the television off and when meals were cooked at home,” she said.
Adults who engaged in both healthful practices – eating home-cooked food and doing it without a TV or video on – every time they ate a family meal had the lowest odds of obesity, but that was a relatively small group.
The good news?
“Families have a lot of demands, and they can feel pressured to do things ‘right’ all the time. This study showed potential benefits regardless of how often you eat a family meal at home,” Tumin said.
Though family-meal frequency did not emerge as a possible contributor to obesity, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t carry other perks for families, including social and emotional health, she said.
Research in children and adolescents has found frequent family meals lead to better dietary outcomes and lower chances the children will become overweight or obese. And other studies have shown that adolescents who watch TV during family meals consume less-healthful meals.
All in all, the research appears to make it hard to argue that unplugged family meals aren’t a good idea for kids and parents alike.