- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Let’s face it: Sometimes Thanksgiving dinner with all the relatives you haven’t seen since the last one can seem like a meal from hell — a moveable feast complete with fights over politics, football and who gets the last drumstick.

But new research suggests that, regardless of how dysfunctional a family might be, quality time over dinner together can promote well-being and healthy eating, especially for children and adolescents.

“Family meals are a pretty powerful aspect of sort of overall health for adolescents,” said Kathryn Walton, a registered dietitian in the Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition at the University of Guelph in Ontario.

She is the lead researcher in a study published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found frequent dinners with close relatives, even in dysfunctional families, promoted healthier diets in children and adolescents.

About 1-in-5 children in the U.S. are considered obese, and that ratio is similar in Canada, where about 26 percent of youth are considered overweight or obese.

The research is unique in that it explores how family meals can improve eating habits and identifies that negative family relationships aren’t a barrier to sitting down together and eating well.

“It’s not only high-functioning families [that] were participating in frequent family meals — we saw across the board that there were families from both high- and low-functioning that did that,” Ms. Walton said.

The data are based on surveys from more than 2,700 14- to 24-year-olds living at home with their parents.

Ms. Walton’s research is timely, coming on the eve of a holiday that almost demands families to come together and eat — and eat and eat.

Dr. Craig Primack, an obesity expert not involved in the research, says some people experience Thanksgiving anxiety, as they are torn between their healthy eating habits and the seductive comforts of food from their childhood.

“Unfortunately, it’s a holiday built around food,” said Dr. Primack, who practices at the Scottsdale Weight Loss Center in Arizona. “We have to go in with an eating plan, but it is one day a year, and one meal by itself has never ruined anyone’s good diet plan,” he said.

The trouble comes when people stretch that one day of overeating into four days of gluttonous consumption — or the following six weeks before making New Year resolutions to lose weight.

Dr. Primack, president-elect of the Obesity Medicine Association, recommends being mindful heading into Thanksgiving dinner. Either eat normally throughout the day leading up to the feast or if eating early, have a snack to hold you over for about two hours before the main meal.

“A lot of people who start eating early afternoon — they’re going to skip a lunch or skip a snack throughout the day, and they get to their Thanksgiving meal extra hungry. That’s a recipe for disaster because the food that sits out before the turkey is almost never healthy,” he said.

But family meals aren’t all about food: There are conversations about the day’s events, arguments over the last election and comments about dating choices.

With that in mind, Ms. Walton and her colleagues asked survey respondents to gauge their family functionality with questions on communication, problem solving and emotional connection.

“So an example of one question is ‘I feel accepted by others in my family,’ and another one is ‘We’re not able to make plans happen because we can’t communicate well,’” she said.

The respondents said they typically eat family meals together five nights a week, and the researchers found that eating as a family reduces the number of times adolescents eat fast food or takeout and increases their servings of fruits and vegetables.

“What our results suggest is that above and beyond the level of the family functioning adolescents will still reap those dietary benefits,” Ms. Walton said.
Earlier research has established several health benefits, from better eating habits to positive emotional well-being, as well as lower rates of eating disorders, substance abuse and depression.

Yet family meals have declined in recent years, from around five meals per week in 1996 to a little over four meals in 2008.

Busy schedules, two working parents, after-school activities and increased demands on time have decreased the number of families that actually sit down for meals, researchers say.

“In terms of research, we haven’t done a good job how to help families eat meals together, there’s been very few studies that have tested interventions,” Ms. Walton said. “Meals don’t have to be perfect … not every meal has to be Thanksgiving level to see those benefits.”

Just planning to add a side salad or side dish of vegetables increases a healthful intake of food, she said. Families can expect to spend between 20 and 30 minutes eating, and similar benefits are observed for families who make breakfast a priority, or even lunch.

“The research shows that every meal counts, so even starting with one meal, the family members will reap those benefits,” Ms. Walton said.

Parents preparing meals with their children teach them kitchen skills. Also, children who eat with their parents are likely to grow up and practice those same behaviors with their own children, the research shows.

This Thanksgiving, Ms. Walton says people should focus on the benefits of the family time instead of the stress that comes along with preparation and interaction with family members.

Dr. Primack suggests loading up one’s plate with turkey, vegetables and salad but also the “food we loves since we were kids.”

“You should eat that thing that you love about Thanksgiving,” he said. “Have a reasonable slice, not too much not just a sliver either, but by having your favorite you can then say ‘no’ to a lot of the things that are going to be there that are not so healthy.”

One thing to prepare to cut out, even as the stress of family builds, is alcohol, he said. Beer, wine and liquor are empty calories, promote extra eating and disrupt restorative sleep, all things that can hinder any successful healthy eating plan.

“We’re a stressed out world, that’s the first thing we have to remember,” he said. “We work too much, we sit too much, we don’t sleep enough and that all spills over into our food intake.”

• Laura Kelly can be reached at lkelly@washingtontimes.com.

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