Harvard Medical School is asking doctors to recommend that youngsters eat old-fashioned family dinners at home to prevent obesity and curb risky habits.
“Doctors should encourage teens to limit their intake of food prepared away from home and eat family dinners together,” said Dr. Elsie Taveras, a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist who led the research.
Home is simply healthier, she said. The prime benefit is “improved diet quality.” But there’s more.
“At-home dinners have also been found to reduce high-risk adolescent behavior such as tobacco, alcohol and marijuana use,” said Dr. Taveras, categorizing the family dinner as “protective.”
Other research supports such findings. A Columbia University study of teen lifestyles last year, for example, found that among teenagers who almost never broke bread with their families, 72 percent were more likely to use illegal drugs, smoke and drink alcohol.
The Harvard researchers tracked the food choices, weight, physical activities and social habits of 14,355 children, ages 9 to 14, from all 50 states.
Fast food was a major factor in their lives; some of the children were dining on the proverbial menu of french fries, burgers, chicken nuggets and soft drinks, Dr. Taveras said, up to four times a week. The number of heavy feeders — those putting away up to seven servings of fried food outside home per week — has more than doubled among teens in the past three years.
Dr. Taveras suggests that a nutritional reality check for both children and parents is in order, deeming it a “public-health strategy.”
Co-author Dr. Matthew Gillman agrees.
“In today’s fast-food environment, it’s a challenge for teenagers and their families to eat what’s nutritious and healthful,” he said.
But it’s doable, particularly as McDonalds, Burger King and other restaurant chains tweak their menus to include lighter fare.
Ignore fried stuff and go for “modest portions of grilled chicken or fish, a salad, some fruit,” Dr. Gillman said.
Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is advocating another old-fashioned idea for children to counter obesity and prevent heart disease, diabetes and other ills — walking to school. In 1969, half the nation’s youth walked or biked to school, compared with 15 percent today, according to a CDC report released last week.
And no wonder: The report found that 61 percent of America’s parents said distance was the worst barrier to walking to school; among other obstacles, 30 percent cited traffic, 19 percent weather, 12 percent crime and six percent “school policy.”
The transportation bill that Congress passed earlier this year, however, has a surprise tucked away for parents and children alike. The bill set aside $612 million for a “Safe Routes to School” initiative — adding sidewalks, boosting traffic enforcement and starting a program that buses children to one mile from school.
Accompanied by two adults, the children walk the rest of the way. It is, the initiative explained, “a walking school bus.”