Eating With Family Associated With Better CV Risk Factors in Adolescents

October 29, 2015

TORONTO, ON — Grade 9 students who eat at least one meal per week with an adult member of their family have less obesity, lower cholesterol levels, and lower blood pressure, according to the results of a new cross-sectional study[1].

For adolescents who ate with at least one family member, those who did so with increasing frequency were more likely to be classified with a lower body-mass index (BMI) and have better waist-to-hip ratios, as well as lower total cholesterol, non-HDL cholesterol, and blood-pressure levels, than kids who ate alone. The greatest benefit was observed in adolescents who ate dinner with family six or seven times per week, report investigators.

The study is based on data from 14,280 grade 9 students participating in the Niagara Healthy Heart Schools' Program, a universal school-based screening program that measures cardiovascular risk factors and provides education on heart-healthy behaviors. Eating habits, including how often the adolescents buy lunch from school, eat at restaurants, and eat at home with a family member, are assessed using food frequency questionnaires.

"The behaviors of children and the risk factors that can develop as a result of them, such as lipid or blood-pressure problems, we know that these track from childhood into adulthood," lead investigator Dr Michael Khoury (Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, ON) told heartwire from Medscape. While previous generations might not have considered children to be at risk for hypertension or hypercholesterolemia, such risk factors are now observed early in life, he added.

In their analysis, which was presented earlier this week here at the the 2015 Canadian Cardiovascular Congress (CCC), they did not observe an association between obesity, cholesterol levels, and blood pressure among children who ate dinner at restaurants more often.

"We didn't find a difference for kids who ate at restaurants more frequently, and while that might be surprising, the kids are relatively young—they're 14 or 15 years old—and it doesn't mean we might not see a difference down the road," said Khoury. "It's well established that restaurant food has lots of salt, fat, saturated fat, sugar, and hidden calories. We might not actually see the risk until the kids are older."

They did find that adolescents who ate alone more frequently and those who bought lunch at school were also significantly more likely to eat at restaurants. "The behaviors are all intertwined with each other," said Khoury.

Despite the association between eating with a family member and reduced obesity, among other markers, the researchers did not analyze the content of the meals the children were eating alone. They are currently in plans to perform such an analysis.

"What I think is happening is that the makeup of the food the kids are eating alone is probably very different from what they eat with their parents," said Khoury. "Preparing a meal together as a family is going to be different from a hungry adolescent coming home from school and going through the cupboards eating whatever he/she wants."

That said, Khoury noted that pediatricians, family physicians, and other experts have long favored sitting down to dinner as a family, as it provides other benefits, too. A supportive environment can provide encouragement and contribute to stress reduction, which is a cardiovascular risk factor, he added.

Khoury reports no relevant financial relationships.

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