Shared family meals are linked to a lower risk for obesity and other health benefits in adolescents, and may be considered an essential component of a traditional Mediterranean diet, according to a new study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
Following a Mediterranean diet, or eating pattern, has been linked to a wide range of health benefits — including improved cognitive function and memory, reduced liver fat, a lower risk for gestational diabetes, a lower risk for depression in older adults, and improved heart health, especially when combined with exercise. Because of its health benefits and how relatively easy and sustainable it is to follow, the Mediterranean diet was named the best diet of 2021 by U.S. News & World Report, an accolade it has received in several recent years.
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The authors of the latest study, all based in Spain, noted that while there has been widespread focus on the “what” of the Mediterranean diet — the foods people eat — another important component is the “how,” or the manner in which people eat these foods. Some of the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet, they reasoned, are likely due to the social and stress-reduction benefits of shared meals, especially family meals that are enjoyed rather than simply consumed. They investigated this idea by conducting 12 semi-structured interviews with families in Mediterranean countries that included adolescents between 12 and 16 years old, to see how the structure of family meals and general adherence to a Mediterranean diet affected health outcomes.
The researchers conducted a food pattern analysis based on the information gained in these interviews along with a detailed food frequency questionnaire, and digital photos of family meals were analyzed to look at the composition of these meals. Not surprisingly, they found that participants valued family meals as an occasion for socializing and communication. They also found that a number of factors were linked to the reported “conviviality” of family meals and these meals’ social benefits: the frequency of family meals, the amount of time spent on these meals, meals eaten at the table, a lack of digital distractions, and having pleasant conversations. Enjoying meals and eating slowly, the researchers noted, are essential to recognizing when you’re full and not overeating — which may contribute to a healthy body weight and reduce the risk of obesity, as reported in an article on the study at Food Navigator.
“Attention should be paid to conviviality in Mediterranean families when designing multi-approach strategies to promote healthy eating among adolescents,” the researchers concluded. Given that this study involved only families in Mediterranean countries, it’s unknown how its findings might apply to other countries like the United States, which may have less of a culture of shared family meals. But there seems to be little downside to making an effort to share and enjoy family meals — and, based on this study, substantial benefits in adolescents, even if they’re difficult to measure.
Want to learn more about the Mediterranean diet? Read “Eating Patterns and Type 1 Diabetes: Mediterranean Diet” and watch “Five Reasons to Try the Mediterranean Diet,” then try five of our favorite diabetes-friendly Mediterranean recipes.
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