Fisherman's Last Supper

Heartwarming Family Meals Prevent Obesity?

Nostrums for overcoming obesity litter the landscape of health policy. “Obesity is preventable,” says the World Health Organization. We like the can-do spirit this reflects. Yet the how-to details are missing – or at least details with evidence to support them. Instead we have glittering generalities and beautiful metaphors. WHO recommends making healthy choices the easiest choices, “therefore preventing overweight and obesity.” But how? One answer comes from Food Navigator, reporting on recent research from Spain. “Sharing and enjoying meals with loved ones reduces obesity,” writes Oliver Morrison.

The only problem is that the research demonstrated no such thing.

Interviews with 12 Families

The research was qualitative. It consisted of interviews with 12 two-parent families with at least one adolescent. Researchers also did a food pattern analysis, using digital photos of family meals. Though they wrote about the value of a Mediterranean diet for preventing obesity, the researchers did not actually measure obesity in their study at all.

The conclusion from this qualitative research was simple. Parents report that family meals are a space for socialization and communication. Conviviality is important for following a healthy Mediterranean diet, say the researchers. So maybe, somehow, conviviality around a Mediterranean diet is one reason that it seems to promote better health outcomes.

A Lovely Narrative

This really is a fine idea. Who doesn’t like conviviality? Surely it enhances quality of life. However, this study offers no evidence that heartwarming family meals will prevent obesity. Other studies have found a correlation between family meals and a lower risk of obesity. But when researchers took the next step with an intervention to prevent obesity by promoting healthful family meals, they found no effect.

So really, there’s nothing wrong with promoting conviviality and family meals. Let’s not deceive ourselves, though. It won’t prevent obesity.

Click here for the qualitative study from Spain and here for the reporting from Food Navigator. For more on the correlation between family meals and obesity, click here and here. The RCT of promoting family meals to prevent obesity can be found here.

Fisherman’s Last Supper, painting by Marsden Hartley / WikiArt

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April 9, 2021

2 Responses to “Heartwarming Family Meals Prevent Obesity?”

  1. April 09, 2021 at 7:55 am, John said:

    Preventable, one of the presumptions about obesity that appears to be more myth. Saying it preventable without evidence simple put the blame back on those living with obesity.

    WHO spin totally unhelpful!

    • April 09, 2021 at 10:06 am, Ted said:

      I heartily agree, John.