Even Without Children, Couples Eat Frequent Family Meals Study represents first comprehensive look at adult-only family meal patterns

Couples and other adult family members living without minors in the house are just as likely as adults living with young children or adolescents to eat family meals at home on most days of the week, new research from Public Health Nutrition suggests.

The study is the first large-scale look at family-meal eating patterns in American adults. While a substantial amount of research has focused on health benefits for children who regularly eat family meals, such eating patterns have not been widely studied in adult-only households. Researchers analyzed data on more than 14,000 Ohio adults, comparing family-meal patterns among adults who lived with minor children to households with at least two adult family members and no children under age 19 living with them. In both types of households, about half of the families ate meals together six or seven days per week. Because most Ohio demographics are comparable to the entire United States, the researchers say they would expect to find similar patterns in national data.

The finding is a first step toward exploring whether adults who eat frequent family meals also experience health benefits. Previous research has suggested that children and adolescents who eat frequent family meals have healthier diets and are less likely to report eating disorders, substance use and depressive symptoms.

“There are a lot of families that don’t have children. And we’ve forgotten about them in this context of thinking about sharing food and time together and what that means,” said Rachel Tumin, a doctoral student in epidemiology at The Ohio State University and lead author of the study. Tumin conducted the research alongside senior author Sarah Anderson, associate professor of epidemiology at Ohio State.

Family meal frequency was assessed based on responses to this survey question: “During the past week, on how many days did you and your family eat at least one meal together at your home or residence?”

The results for both groups were startlingly similar, with the distribution of family meal frequency for adults not living with children closely mirroring that of adults who were living with minor children. Roughly half of all Ohio adults ate a meal together with their family at home six or seven days per week, and few in either group reported zero family meals (5 to 7 percent).

“Most people value family meals and engage in this behavior. The prevalence of never eating family meals or eating together only once a week is low,” Anderson said. “We thought the distribution would be different, and we hypothesized that adults with children would be much more likely to eat together as a family. The data showed otherwise. If further research finds associations between higher frequency of family meals and improved health outcomes for adults, that will have implications for public health messages.”

In almost all cases, the similarities between groups held even when demographic factors influenced the frequency of family meals. African-American families, adults who were not married and those who were employed ate family meals less frequently than white and Hispanic families, married people and the unemployed. That pattern was true for adult-only families and families with minor children.

“Whatever underlying factors are associated with marital status, race and ethnicity, and employment seem to have the same effect on eating family meals regardless of whether or not you have kids in the household,” Tumin said.

However, age did affect the family-meal pattern. Among adults who did not live with minor children, the adults who were older ate more family meals than those who were younger. Almost half of families with children in the home ate family meals most days of the week regardless of the adults’ age. This analysis does not reveal any information about the quality of the meals that families are sharing, so Tumin plans to move in that direction with research on family meal preparation and any distractions in the dining environment.

Despite the extensive previous research on family meals for children and adolescents, key questions remain: What exactly constitutes a family meal? And is there a dose effect, meaning that more family meals per week can translate into a specifically defined health benefit?

“It’s challenging to tease apart and understand what it means to have a family meal and why it’s beneficial and how it plays into all other family activities,” Tumin said. “Claiming that family meals are the be-all and end-all and that everyone should eat them all the time may be too simplistic a message. We don’t have enough information yet to tailor that message with data that back it up.”

Read the full article here until 19th October 2014


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