IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Family meals' fat-fighting effects vary by race

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Eating family meals may help fight obesity in white children, but it doesn't seem to benefit black children much, and could even raise Hispanic boys' obesity risk, new research shows.
/ Source: Reuters

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Eating family meals may help fight obesity in white children, but it doesn't seem to benefit black children much, and could even raise Hispanic boys' obesity risk, new research shows.

The study, in nearly 17,000 U.S. children, didn't look at what children were eating or how much they consumed. "I think that's a topic for future research, to figure out just what's going on at the dinner table," Brandi Y. Rollins of The Pennsylvania State University in University Park, who helped conduct the research, told Reuters Health.

She and her colleagues report their findings in the September issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

Several well-publicized studies have shown that frequent family dinners may promote healthy weight and even reduce risky behaviors like drinking and smoking among adolescents and teens. But to date, Rollins said, there has been just one study of how family meals affect obesity risk in younger children. There's also evidence, she added, that family meals may be more beneficial to white teens than to black or Hispanic adolescents.

To investigate whether race, gender and household education level might influence the protective effects of family meals, Rollins and her team looked at data from the 2003 National Survey of Children's Health. The study included 16,770 boys and girls 6 to 11 years old, 72 percent of whom were non-Hispanic whites.

Forty-three percent of the white children were overweight or obese, compared to 60 percent of Hispanic children and 63 percent of non-Hispanic black children. White and black children ate about five meals a week with their families, on average, while Hispanic children averaged six family meals a week.

Non-Hispanic white kids who ate family meals every day were one-third less likely to be obese than white children who ate family meals twice a week or less. But there was no relationship between family meal frequency and overweight or obesity among black girls. For black boys, the risk of being overweight or obese decreased "marginally" as family meals per week increased.

For Hispanic boys who either lived in a single parent household or lived in less educated households (meaning the most-educated family member had either finished high school or completed fewer years of school), eating more family meals actually increased the risk of being overweight or obese.

There was no relationship, though, between family meal frequency and excess weight for Hispanic girls living with one parent or in less educated households, or for Hispanic boys and girls living in two-parent or more highly educated households.

"It is possible that parents within these ethnic populations used different child-feeding practices with their male and female children; previous research has shown this to be the case in other ethnic groups," Rollins and her team write. They note that one study found non-Hispanic white parents placed more food within reach for boys than for girls.

Another study found that Hispanic families were more likely than other ethnic groups to buy fast food for family dinners, the researchers add. "These family meals may not be the healthiest family meals," Rollins said.

Yet another possible explanation, she added, is that because black and Hispanic children are at higher risk of obesity than white kids, encouraging them to sit down to family dinners more often may simply not be enough.

"It just kind of sends a message that just telling people to have family meals isn't enough -- focusing also on what they're having during these family meals is just as important," Rollins said.

In another study in the same journal, Dr. Alisha J. Rovner of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda, Maryland and her colleagues report that making time for meals together is just as tough for children with type1diabetes and their families as for other families.

Today, Rovner and her team point out, kids with type 1 diabetes can thrive on less restrictive -- but still healthy -- diets thanks to more widespread use of flexible insulin regimens.

The 35 young people and their families who participated in the study's focus groups agreed that special dietary requirements weren't a factor in why they didn't eat together more frequently; "rather, barriers previously identified in the general population, notably limited time constraints and busy schedules, appear to be the primary constraints to the occurrence of shared family meals for families living with diabetes," the researchers conclude.

SOURCE: Journal of the American Dietetic Association, September 2010.