FAMILY MEALS: ESSENTIAL TO FAMILY HEALTH

September is National Family Meals Month, and it couldn’t come at a more appropriate time than right now, when kids are back at school, yet for many families affected by weather, a family meal can be the most comforting thing ever.  For all families, re-committing to having family meals together is one of the most beneficial things parents can do for their kids and for family life.

The practice of having family meals isn’t dead, but there are signs it’s ailing.   Families still eat together, but according to a Harris poll cited in a 2015 study on family meals, only 3 in 10 families eat together every night.  There’s room for improvement here and there are many reasons to make the effort.

Family Meals: It’s About the ACT As Much As the Meal

A quick research rundown on benefits of frequent family meals:

  • Kids are 12% LESS likely to be overweight
  • Kids are 24% MORE likely to eat healthier foods (and 20% LESS likely to eat unhealthy foods!)
  • Kids are 35% LESS likely to have eating disorders (e.g. have a healthier RELATIONSHIP with food)
  • A separate study found that eating home-cooked meals most often (even if using some frozen or packaged convenience foods) resulted in eating about 130 FEWER calories for the day, compared to people who cook at home less often or not at all. Those families also ate less fat and sugar.

The benefits go beyond nutrition.  Better mental health, social skills and even higher grades In addition to the dietary benefits, research has shown advantages to eating meals together that go beyond nutrients and nutrition but that are every bit as important:

  • A 2015 study: Kids who grow up having regular family meals are more likely to have more desirable social behaviors (such as sharing, respect, fairness) as adults.
  • A 2014 study: have fewer signs of depression, less likely to abuse drugs, less likely to engage in delinquent acts.
  • Strong association between family meals and higher grades, higher self-esteem, less risky behavior.

So…What’s the Barrier to Family Meals?

Check the “Life Happens” folder.  There’s more demanded of everyone today.  Jobs aren’t 9 to 5 anymore.  Technology allows (and encourages) us to check work-related messages outside of typical workday hours.  Pile on the demands of the kids, their academic, extracurricular, and social schedules, plus the demands of just running a household, and family meal seems like an unnecessary expenditure of time.

It’s necessary. As often as you can have it and really make it a priority.   It sends important messages to your kids:

  • A little time spent together every day is important, and
  • You kids are worth my time every day.
  • I want to know what’s happening with you, and

Is there a downside to family meals?  Only if the family relationship isn’t strong.  It’s also another reason to establish the family table early on as a totally neutral zone for parents and kids alike.

How To Enjoy, Not Endure, Family Meals

  • No technology.   If kids – or patents can’t disconnect for the 20-30 minutes it takes for the family meal, then family meals aren’t the problem, family standards are, and it’s time for a reset.  They’ll miss a few texts and posts and they’ll learn the world still spins.
  • Switzerland. The family meal table is a fully demilitarized zone.  No fights, no bickering, no lectures.  Keep it positive.  If social skills need some work, this is the place.  Give some guidance, but always with encouragement, not judgement.  And ALWAYS give some positive feedback.  Kids (and adults) love to be told they’re doing a good job.
  • Table it. Research has associated eating together around the family table, not in front of the TV or in other rooms, with lower body mass index (BMI – a measure of weight-for-height) for kids AND parents. Keep them engaged until everyone is finished – that’s also associated with lower BMIs.
  • Everyone’s an owner. Parents are hungry for prep help! No matter the menu, give age-appropriate tasks for prep and clean-up.  Everyone gets dinner sooner and enjoys it more because they have a personal stake in its prep.  Big note: tell the kids you appreciate their help.  Positive feedback is the ultimate motivator.

Fave Family Meal Story

My friend, Marylou, told me about her former next-door neighbor, a widow with six kids and a huge house to care for.  Marylou visited one Saturday morning to find the widow with a huge pile of laundry to do, yet she was prepping to take all her kids on a picnic.  Marylou was aghast and said, What about all this laundry?!”  The woman said, “I know, but in ten years they won’t remember the laundry.  They’ll remember the picnic we had.”

I love that mom.  And thanks to my own mom, for making great family meals — including breakfasts!

ARE SMARTPHONES HELPING OR HURTING TEENS’ LIFESTYLES

A recent article in The Atlantic, written by Jean M. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, painted a bleak statistical picture of the “iPhone” generation – basically pre-teens and teens, as does her recent book on the subject.  Here’s a snapshot of what’s happening with kids today since the debut of the iPhone, much of which is drawn from data collected by Monitoring the Future:

  • Less going out without their parents.
  • Less likely to get at least 7 hours of sleep: By 2015, 41% of teens failed to get at least 7 hours of sleep nightly, up from 34% in 2007.
  • Nearly 1 in 4 teens admits to being online “almost constantly”.
  • More likely to feel lonely: In 2015 nearly 1 in 3 teens said they felt lonely, up from 1 in 5 in 2007.

Almost 9 in 10 teens have smartphones now, and they use them.  According to a study by the Pew research center, the typical teen in 2015 sent and received about 30 texts per day, versus none in 2007.  More than 7 in 10 teens use multiple social network platforms.

What’s the addiction to smartphones?

All humans learned to survive by monitoring any changes in their environment.  Social networks change every second of every day.  It’s easy to see how teens (and adults, let’s face it) can’t help feeling that they’re missing out if not constantly monitoring various social platforms.

Teens may be “super-connected” but are they “communicating”?  Their increasing feelings of loneliness suggest that they’re not.

Disturbing thought: kids can now be “socially” active without leaving their homes, without leaving their rooms, and even without leaving their beds.  Nothing physical required for this “social activity” except thumbs in motion. Even if they do physical activity in school, the more they’re using their smartphones, the more they’re essentially at bedrest.

What does this have to do with health?

A lot.  Staying at home more, going out less, feeling lonely, and getting less sleep, are all negative trends for developing teens. Add that to the lack of physical activity that’s enabled by this online, sedentary life, and it doesn’t bode well for their health.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, all kids ages 6-17 years should get at least 60 minutes of physical activity daily. Nationally, only 1 in 4 said they met this goal in 2015, according to CDC statistics.  Nearly 3 in 10 did as recently as 2011.  That also means 75% of teens are not active enough.

Former Surgeon General David Satcher, in his 2001 landmark “Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight And Obesity”, emphasized more physical activity, but also “fewer sedentary activities.”  That means an hour of exercise followed by 23 hours of laying around, doesn’t cut it.

Back to school is a perfect time to build a better routine, one that gives teens a lifestyle that’s not only healthier, but happier.  If feelings of loneliness are increasing, they often go hand-in-hand with low self-esteem, already too common in teens.  Behavior changes that help shift self-esteem positively deserve some attention.

Calories and Social Media Time: 2 Things to Spend Wisely

Here are three big triggers for mindless eating: feeling lonely, being tired, and staring at any screen.  If your teen thinks a smartphone is an umbilical cord to the world, cutting it off seems tyrannical and isn’t necessary.  Still, these tips can help them towards healthier behaviors, positive attitudes, and lead them to healthier eating:

  • Media diet: NEVER at the table and insist the meal last 30 minutes. Family dinners aren’t just about food, they’re about communicating and connecting.  If this requires some getting used to, it’s a red flag that it’s overdue.
  • Kitchen help. Assign them some part of the meal prep – it builds responsibility but it also keeps them off the smartphone a little longer.  If it’s preparing part of the meal, give them some freedom to make decisions about what vegetable to cook or what ingredients to include in the salad.
  • TELL THEM YOU APPRECIATE WHAT THEY DID and mean it. There’s never been a better motivator than that.
  • Keep ALL “screen time” to a max of 2 hours daily, but also support non-screen activities that interest them.
  • Shut down all media (and snacking) at least an hour before bedtime. Two hours is even better.

Silver lining: by 2015 teens were also far less likely to have a driver’s license and have sex than were teens in 2007 – but there have to be better ways to prevent driving accidents and teen sex than keeping them home, hypnotized by a screen!

Show Me LESS Money — I’ll Show You a Healthy Mediterranean Diet

A recently published study suggested there were “socioeconomic status (SES) inequities in the cardiovascular protection associated with the traditional Mediterranean Diet.”  Simply put, the Mediterranean diet reduced cardiovascular risk but only in higher socioeconomic groups.  The best benefits came among those who were well educated and had better incomes.  It also suggested that the better health outcome of this richer and more educated bunch happened because they were able to buy higher quality, healthier food.

This may make for great headlines: low-income, less educated people are victims of a cruel society that keeps them powerless and less healthy.  It also bugs me to no end.  I have spent most of my career working with primarily low- and moderate-income populations.  My patients read a headline that says only the wealthy and educated can benefit from a Mediterranean diet and conclude things are just stacked against them because they aren’t wealthy or upper-income people and may never be.

What’s in The Study but Not the Headlines:

Whenever I see conclusions like these I know it’s time to dig in a little deeper. There are other conclusions, perhaps more realistic ones, that could be drawn from this study, even if they wouldn’t grab headlines.

All studies have weakness and limitations.  Many never make it into the press releases and news articles, however, and that just adds to all the nutrition confusion out there.  This study’s authors acknowledged some of the study’s weaknesses, but there were others that weren’t considered.

  • The authors acknowledged the study’s somewhat short duration, only 4.3 years of follow-up. Fair enough — it is what it is.
  • They noted that dietary information was self-reported and taken only once and only at baseline. A lot can change over 4 years that could impact the value of the study’s findings and conclusions.
  • Average age of the subjects was mid-50’s.  There is no record of their dietary history up to this point.  It’s one of the problems with this type of research – current dietary pattern doesn’t indicate your lifetime dietary history, when many of your health risks were likely determined.
  • Differences in health outcomes were attributed to dietary disparities. That’s a leap.  The outcomes may have had more to do with health care disparities throughout the years prior to the study, rather than whether or not they ate a green vegetable the day before they were interviewed.
  • The study noted that higher SES groups “are more likely to get in line with dietary recommendations”. Very likely, but such groups may also be more likely to afford and seek medical attention, take prescribed medication, follow physician recommendations, and make other positive lifestyle modifications.  This is a huge piece of the puzzle.

Rich and Educated Didn’t Always Do the Smart Thing

Higher income participants actually ate a narrower variety of vegetables than the lower income group and practiced LESS healthful cooking methods for beef, such as grilling and frying.   Does that mean also that eating fewer types of vegetables and doing more frying and grilling of beef is “linked” to a better outcome?  Not likely, although, to be fair and balanced, that’s what the data show, and it’s just as statistically accurate to make such a statement from these data.  This is why describing a behavior as “linked” or “associated” to an outcome doesn’t always tell us much and should certainly never be considered equivalent to “cause-and-effect.”

Observational studies make it easy to cherry-pick what you want to conclude.  All they are really designed to do however, is generate a hypothesis, not a conclusion.

We should be empowering and motivating lower-income people, not treating them as victims.  I don’t have the luxury of telling my low-income patients sorry, but eating better and being healthier are a rich man’s game.  Hello?  They need and deserve help, motivation, and sound nutrition advice, not to hear their health is at risk because they didn’t go to college or make a lot of money.

A Healthy, Economical Mediterranean Diet

Your Mediterranean diet doesn’t have to be populated with lobster and shrimp and washed down with an expensive chardonnay.  For the rest of us, more reasonable options are the way to go, and they can be just as tasty and healthful.  After all, the original Mediterranean diet wasn’t about indulgence, it was about making the best from what was available.

Try these tips for eating a delicious Mediterranean diet.  They’re budget-friendly but they’re smart for any budget:

  • Canned salmon – a treasure. It’s my own go-to for omega-3 fats. Surprise: it’s almost always wild, but without the wild price of the fresh stuff. The edible bones are loaded with calcium and vitamin D, too.
  • Beans, any kind, canned, fresh, or dry: Hummus anyone? Canned kidney or garbanzo beans are great topped with some pasta sauce.
  • Eat in the “C-suite”. Super-nutritious affordable fave veggies: carrots, cabbage, collards, cauliflower, celery. All great choices any time of year.
  • Frozen: peas, green beans are awesome and just as nutritious as fresh, with no prep or waste.
  • Fruits: eat the best of each season. It’ll taste better and be more affordable.  Let it be your sweet treat instead of junk sweets.
  • Extra-virgin Olive oil: You only need a little.  Buy what you can afford and use it where you’ll really taste it — on salads, bread, even on hummus.
  • Dessert, anyone? Try Greek yogurt with fruit, nuts, and a teaspoon of honey. Great for protein when it’s a meatless meal, too.
  • Nuts in bags, not jars. You get more for the money. An ounce a day is enough for benefits.

BEEF EARNS ITS PLACE AT THE WEIGHT LOSS TABLE

A solid clinical study by a well-respected team, just published in the July issue of Obesity Science and Practice, showed that eating lean beef, at least four times per week, produced weight loss just as effectively as a non-beef diet.  Even better: there was no negative impact on heart health indicators, like total cholesterol, LDL “bad” cholesterol, or blood pressure.

This research, called the Beef W.I.S.E. Study (Weight Improvement, Satisfaction, Energy) followed 99 overweight and obese adults for 16 weeks.  Everyone did moderate-intensity exercise regularly and ate a higher protein diet, either with beef or without beef.  The beef eating dieters ate beef about 4 times per week, not every day, and they ate plenty of other lean protein foods, like nonfat Greek yogurt, fish, chicken breast, etc. Indeed, some type of lean protein happened at each meal and snack.

The beef-eaters lose just as much weight, preserved just as much lean muscle mass as the non-beef group. “A key finding of this study is that 90 to 95 percent of the weight lost came from fat, not muscle,” said Dr. Drew Sayer, PhD, a co-author of the study. “This shows that lean beef doesn’t have to be restricted in a higher-protein diet and is just as effective as other protein choices in supporting healthy weight loss and leaner bodies.”

And I’d bet they also liked their diet more, because they didn’t have to omit food they liked.  Anytime you have to omit a food on a diet, it can become the one food you want.  According to the Consumer Beef Index, a survey of attitudes about beef, 3 out of 4 people DO like beef as a favorite or a top meal choice.  The dieters in the Beef WISE didn’t eat beef daily, but about five times weekly.  No deprivation there.

That’s exactly why I like this study: no feelings of deprivation.  To be fair, there was no particular advantage to including lean beef, but the W.I.S.E. factors of satisfaction and energy are key to EVERY successful diet, and to maintaining both the lost weight and a healthful eating style.  Whether you’re trying to lose weight or keep it off, YOUR eating style should help you feel energized and satisfied.  The researchers will be following these dieters longer term and satisfaction data is also being analyzed, but the high retention rate suggests the participants liked whichever diet they were eating.

These beef-eaters ate lean beef, but that’s pretty easy.  There are 29 cuts of beef that qualify as lean, meaning they have less than 10 grams of fat per serving and less than 4 ½ grams of saturated fat per 3-oz. cooked serving.  Check out this chart listing 19 popular lean cuts of beef.

CutToTheChase: If you like lean beef, it’s be W.I.S.E. to include it while losing weight. It’s produces the same benefits as a non-beef diet.  Liking your diet is key to staying one it!  Try this lean beef recipe for Grilled Southwestern Steak with Colorful Vegetables (pictured at top).  It’s quick, delicious, and loaded with lean protein.

Note: this study was funded partially by the Beef Checkoff, but also by many additional federal agencies, like the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.  It was registered at https://clinicaltrials.gov. It’s sound science and highly credible. It’s sound science and highly credible. It’s one of the reasons I partnered with the Beef Checkoff program, established by the federal government in 1985. Participation by beef producers is mandatory.