MONDAY, May 2, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- Eating meals with their families helps keep kids slimmer and healthier, a new study finds.
Researchers pooled data from 17 earlier studies and found that youngsters who joined family members regularly for meals were 24 percent more likely to eat healthy foods than kids who rarely ate with their families. They were also less likely to suffer from eating disorders.
Parents can "really relate to and understand" the findings, published in the May 2 issue of Pediatrics, said study lead author Amber Hammons, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
"We wanted to look at the family's contribution to positive outcomes as it relates to nutrition," added Hammons. "It's important for parents to know what they can do, especially with obesity and eating habits; they want to know what role they can play."
Through an Internet search in 2009, researchers at the university's Family Resiliency Center obtained relevant studies involving almost 183,000 children and teens ranging from roughly 3 to 17 years old. They looked at the youths' eating habits, weight, and whether they did anything harmful to control it.
Those who ate three or more meals a week with their families were 12 percent less likely to be overweight than those who ate few or no meals with their families, and 20 percent less likely to eat sweets, fried foods, soda, and other unhealthy foods.
Eating five or more meals together reduced the likelihood of poor nutrition by 25 percent, an analysis of eight of the studies revealed.
Kids who ate with their families also were 35 percent less likely to engage in "disordered eating" behaviors aimed at losing weight, such as binge-eating, purging, taking diet pills or laxatives, vomiting, skipping meals or smoking.
Participants were deemed overweight if they had a body mass index (BMI) at or above the 85th percentile, meaning that they were heavier than 85 percent of children their age.
Eating two or more fruits and vegetables daily, and skipping soda, candy and fried foods were included as a measure of healthy nutrition.
While the study suggests that eating together as a family confers a "protective" benefit on children, the reasons for that were unclear. Some possibilities included the value of adult role models, and adult intervention before poor behaviors became bad habits, the study said.
Other research has found that meals prepared at home are more nutritious, with more fresh fruit and vegetables, and less fat, sugar and soda.
"We know that meals prepared at home are more likely to be less calorie-dense," said Hammons. But other factors such as communication during meal time might also drive the positive influence of family meals on health, she added.
"The future direction for research will not be looking at quantity of meals but at what is making meal time so important," she said.
Another expert, Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis, said the study gives "a good overview of what research shows in terms of the importance of family meals" on child health. But she cautioned about its drawbacks.
"Some of the studies have limitations, including some variability in collection of nutritional outcomes, diversity of ethnicity and gender, and how studies classified weight," Diekman said.
But even with those stumbling blocks, the study provides "strong indications that shared family meals help boost nutritional intake, control body weight, and potentially prevent disordered eating patterns," said Diekman.
Children may imitate their parents, according to other research. A survey by the American Dietetic Association Foundation found that children identified their parents as their number one role models and claimed that if their parents ate healthier foods, they would too, said Diekman.
The authors of the current study say doctors should emphasize the value of family meals for patients struggling with eating disorders or obesity.
To learn more about good nutrition, visit American Dietetic Association.