Are You Involved in Family Dinner? Why Closeness Matters in Reducing Childhood Obesity

Reviewed by Wendy Marcason, RDN
Are You Involved in Family Dinner? Why Closeness Matters in Reducing Childhood Obesity

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Studies continue to suggest that family dynamics have an impact on children's body weight, especially when it comes to certain parental strategies — including restricting food intake, using food as a reward and having strict rules about exercise, as well as a parent's own eating pattern and family dynamic.

The Situation

People often tell tales of where their dislike of asparagus or creamed spinach originated, many claiming they couldn't leave the dinner table until they finished their veggies. Yet, in order to get kids to eat right, some parents force their children to eat, which tends to decrease their liking of that food altogether. What parents may think is a good strategy for getting children to eat nutrient-rich foods can often work against their greater goal. Labeling foods as "bad" or forbidding foods only increases a child's desire for the food. Parents who tightly control their own eating — "restrained" eaters — may not notice they exert such excessive control over their children's food habits, which can lead to the risk of overweight in children. And, using food as a reward, such as giving a child a cookie for completing his or her homework, can also lead to an increased desire or preference for that food. Forceful tactics for eating healthfully also apply to strict rules about exercise, often having the opposite effect: Children may end up exercising less.

Tips for Promoting Positive Habits for Mealtimes

Instead of using control, try providing your child with healthy foods and a positive atmosphere for dining, and let the child select the foods and amounts. Remember, a child's appetite fluctuates during childhood, so once they communicate their full, don't push kids to clean their plate. Encourage an active lifestyle, but let your child pick their preferred activity — dancing, cycling, skateboarding, walking the dog, helping with lawn care and working in the family garden all count toward physical activity.

Finally, family dynamic can have a positive (or negative) effect on a child's weight, it's important to cultivate a supportive environment. Through research findings, the family patterns that seem most related to a healthy body weight include family closeness, a democratic-style of parenting, support and mind-stimulating activities in the home. Negative family patterns associated with overweight children include overprotectiveness or possessiveness or lack of parental support.

Aim for balance and openness around food and mealtimes. Include your children in meal planning, shopping and preparation to encourage a healthy weight. Remember, to help your children maintain a healthy body weight, stay away from using food as a reward and don't forbid specific foods. Provide fair attitudes toward feeding and create a warm and open family environment at mealtimes.

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