HRF Ahead of the Curve in Tackling Obesity Through Research

-By Joanna Roughton

Every think-tank strives to be relevant and we believe our research initiatives have been ahead of the curve in key areas of social policy research.

One good example dates back to 2006. That was the year we hosted a conference entitled Excellence in the Home: Balanced Diet – Balanced Life. There were several papers assessing the importance of eating at home as a family unit. It was an area of domestic life which we felt, hitherto, had not enjoyed the fullest scrutiny from academia

Immodest it may be to say this out loud – but it seems we have been remarkably prescient. Because in recent years there has been a mounting consensus that family meals matter.

And all the time, research on this subject is delivering fresh and surprising insights which support this think-tank’s educated guess – that sitting down as a family to eat together as regularly as possible delivers a range of positive and demonstrable outcomes.

The latest data secured widespread publicity as recently as mid-January 2014. It came from the University of Illinois. The study found that children who eat with their parents at the dinner table are better able to learn the signs of feeling full, reducing the chance of overeating. The research also recommends allowing children to serve themselves instead of pre-plating food.

“Family-style meals give kids a chance to learn about things like portion size and food preferences,” lead author Dr. Brent McBride, director of the child development laboratory at the University of Illinois, said. “When foods are pre-plated, children never develop the ability to read their body’s hunger cues. They don’t learn to say, ‘OK, this is an appropriate portion size for me.’ “

What seems to be happening is that research is following the money! Obesity is arguably the most pressing public health problem, with latest projections suggesting that half of adults in the UK will be obese by 2050 (see the recent post on this one). Empirical evidence has established that there is a link between eating as a family and reduced obesity. Now the hunt is on to refine our understanding as to why that can be.

And there is no shortage of theories. Just a few months ago Brian Wansink of Cornell University in New York and Ellen van Kleef of Wageningen University in the Netherlands put together a paper which suggested that “family dinner rituals” played a key role in keeping the weight of family members under control. 

Conversation with other family members seems to be the decisive factor in this, helping diners to pace their consumption. That speed of eating matters. Columbia University found that meals were increasingly rushed affairs for a growing number of us. A survey of 1,000 teenagers in 2011 found that a third of families spent 20 minutes or less eating dinner – a six per cent rise in just two years.

Of course, it is not simply obesity that has an inverse relationship with high-quality family dinners. The HRF’s own Dr Sophia Aguirre has published research assessing the impact of not giving the family meal the space and thought it needs. Dr Aguirre has noted strong correlations between a dearth of family meals and increase in so-called risky behaviours, from drug abuse to self-harm.

She is not alone in pointing out that it is at the family dining table (an increasingly rare thing in new-build homes which are shrinking in size and often now only offer a kitchen/diner) that soft-skills are learned. Where the art of conversation is first honed. Where children learn what is appropriate behaviour in a formal setting surrounded by adult company.

Professor Dr Marta Elvira, Professor at the IESE Business School quotes Brillat-Savarin to explain how the very necessity of nourishment may have led us to take it for granted. We may also have taken it for granted that people would learn healthy eating around the family dining table.

Professor Elvira shows how preparing and sharing meals is a central social action with important consequences for physical and psychological wellbeing.

So, well done to the pioneers of the HRF. The tide of research is gathering strength around a subject we have helped unwrap. The next step will be to gently persuade policy-makers that a family meal is a social good that sensible governments can and should make possible as a priority for all.

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