(RxWiki News) There's more to a meal than eating. The time spent with family at the dinner table can be good both for the heart and to help keep off the extra pounds.
A recently published study found that families who sit down together for 20 minutes or more during meal times can improve kids' health and better maintain a healthy weight compared to families who do not spend as much time together.
Results showed that by planning, organizing and sitting down together at dinner, families can feel more connected and stay on top of what's going on in life as well as what's going down the hatch.
"Plan at least four meals together as a family each week."
Previous studies have shown that having family mealtimes is linked with positive diet and nutritional choices among kids.
The study, led by Barbara Fiese, PhD, professor and director of the Family Resiliency Center at the University of Illinois, showed how time spent with family over meals can support or hinder healthy eating habits among kids.
Researchers observed 200 family mealtimes and the behaviors of each family member. They also looked at their environment and whether the children were overweight or obese.
To group the children by weight, researchers measured each child's body mass index (BMI), which takes their height and weight into account together.
In line with previous studies, researchers found that children who spent at least 20 minutes together with their families at least four times a week weighed less than those who left the table after 15 minutes.
Families that felt mealtimes were an important part of their family's daily life and routine were less likely to have an obese child.
"Sharing meals may allow children to focus more on healthy eating patterns rather than being distracted by media known to be associated with obesity," researchers wrote in their report.
These families also showed more concern for one another and valued their routine.
In addition, children who were considered at a healthy weight spent more time with their families during meal times and communicated more positively with their families, compared to overweight children.
Meal times promoted organization and emotional connections between family members, according to the researchers.
Families that had a healthy weight child also spent more time planning and scheduling the meals.
"It is plausible that these are also families who plan their meals ahead of time and shop in advance, a known element associated with healthier food choice," researchers wrote.
On the other hand, families that had varying schedules and who juggled multiple tasks like work and transportation were less likely or less able to spend the same amount of time preparing and planning meals.
"For these low-income mothers, the most prized commodity was time - something they felt they could not control nor effectively allocate," researchers wrote.
"Pertinent to our study, the compounded effects of living in low income neighborhoods, being a single parent, and having limited time available to plan or be present for family routines increases the child’s vulnerability for poor health outcomes," they wrote.
The researchers noted their study included a relatively small number of families. They also did not consider families that had children without asthma and only measured obesity using BMI.
Future research should include more families without asthma, the researchers said.
The study, funded by National Institute of Mental Health and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture's Hatch Project, was published in the December 2012 issue of the journal Economics & Human Biology.