Eating as a family while maintaining the traditional conviviality customs of the Mediterranean diet influences the eating habits of adolescents and prevents eating disorders, concludes a new study prepared by scientists from the Open University of Catalonia (UOC) and the University Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) which has been published in the open access scientific journal International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
“At a time when confinement due to the pandemic has revived family meals, this study points to one of the possible positive aspects of the situation in which we have lived,” explains study researcher Anna Bach-Faig, from the Foodlab research group and professor of Health Sciences Studies.
Research establishes that some family meal routines, such as sharing food, sitting around a table without digital devices, or having a pleasant conversation, are beneficial for adolescents and contribute to their health. According to other studies, the research indicates that this conviviality, in which it is common to talk and eat more slowly, promotes that adolescents recognize the feeling of fullness in meals and, indirectly, prevents obesity.
The study, which was carried out through in-depth interviews with families in Catalonia with adolescents between twelve and sixteen years old, analyzes one of the least studied aspects of the Mediterranean diet: socialization in meals and how the way they are consumed food also affects health.
“To have a healthy diet, it is not only what we eat but also how we eat it,” explains Anna Bach-Faig. «The Mediterranean diet is much more than a list of foods. It is a cultural model that includes how these foods are selected, produced, processed and consumed.
The importance of conversation
To determine the greater or lesser conviviality in the studied families, the researchers analyzed the frequency and duration of family meals, the place where they were made, the use of digital devices, the preparation of food and the type of communication that was established in such encounters.
According to the study, most families met only for dinner and their habits varied depending on whether they ate alone or with loved ones. The research identified that family meals were a space to communicate and socialize, and that when families spent less time with them, did not sit at the table, were distracted with digital devices or did not have pleasant conversations in those meetings, they also continued to be less measure the Mediterranean diet.
For most parents, eating as a family was especially important if they had adolescent sons or daughters, since this fact encourages conversation and strengthens family ties. “When boys and girls are young, it is easier, but in adolescence there is a disconnect between you and them and, through these conversations, one can enter their world a bit,” explained one of the mothers interviewed.
In addition, most of the people surveyed considered that, thanks to these family encounters, parents become role models that help establish healthy patterns for their children. This impression is consistent with the results of other studies, which show that eating as a family is related to a healthier diet, with more vegetables and fruits and fewer sugary drinks.
The western diet
For nutrition expert Anna Bach-Faig, preserving traditions in the way we eat is essential to preserve the benefits of the Mediterranean diet and promote the health of new generations. But, for several decades, the Mediterranean diet has lost weight in the face of the so-called “Western diet”, in which processed foods predominate and eating quickly, often in front of the television.
Considering these aspects, the study emphasizes, is vital to promote a healthy diet in adolescence and design public health campaigns. An example of this was the Implica’t campaign, which was carried out in Catalonia and in which researchers from this study participated. “Just as we recommend eating five fruits and vegetables a day,” explains Bach-Faig, “it could be recommended to eat at least one family meal a day.”