A regular mealtime ritual may keep people slim.
At the table you pay attention to what you eat.
In families where meals are consistently eaten at the table, both the children and the adults are slimmer. This suggests that simple behavioural changes can help us to eat more healthily. Consumer researcher Ellen van Kleef discovered this when, together with Brian Wansink of Cornell University, she subjected data from earlier research to fresh analysis. Their results were published this autumn in the journal Obesity.
Researchers have thought for a while that mealtime rituals influence how much we eat. They look for habits that made people eat with more awareness – and therefore less – and which therefore help them maintain a healthy weight. ‘You can explain to people yet again what healthy eating is,’ says Van Kleef, assistant professor in Market Science and Consumer Behaviour, ‘but that has proven not to be enough.’ Meanwhile the need for more effective prevention is becoming ever more pressing. According to the CBS (Statistics Netherlands), 40 percent of the Dutch population are now overweight. At the beginning of the nineteen eighties that figure was just 27 percent.
For this study 190 American parents of children between 8 and 12 years old filled in a questionnaire about their mealtime rituals. They said how often there were rows or whether in fact it was a time for pleasant conversation. They also reported whether grace was said before the meal and whether the family ate at the table or in front of the television. Then the body mass index (BMI) of the test subjects was measured.
The results revealed that the more consistently a family sat up for meals at the table, the lower the BMI of the family members. Van Kleef has a few ideas as to why eating at the table has a positive influence. ‘You probably remember a meal you took time for better, and that makes it feel more satisfying,’ she says. ‘What is more, the discipline of eating three meals at the table makes you eat fewer snacks.’ But she hastens to add that this is still speculation: ‘This is explorative research.’
The results do tie in with those of earlier studies, though. They clearly showed that our environment is a factor in how much we eat. We eat more off big plates, and we reach satiety later in good company or if we are distracted. ‘People eat more than they realize,’ says Van Kleef. ‘And you should arrange the environment so that you draw their attention to it. Then it is easier for them to eat healthy amounts.’