U of M study shows fast food as family meals limits healthy food intake, increases obesity risk

January 08, 2007

Families whose meals frequently consist of fast food are more likely to have unhealthy eating habits, poor access to healthy foods at home, and a higher risk for obesity, according to researchers at the University of Minnesota Medical School.

The study, published in the January 2007 issue of Public Health Nutrition, found that the home food environment of families who ate fast food for dinner more than three times a week consisted of more chips and soda pop and less fruits and vegetables than families who ate fast food less than three times a week. A higher frequency of fast food dinners was also associated with obesity and a higher body mass index (BMI) in adults.

"Fast food can be a convenient alternative to cooking for busy families," said Kerri Boutelle, Ph.D., lead author and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota Medical School. "But, frequently making fast food a family meal can negatively affect food choices in the house and the overall health of the family."

The study is part of Project EAT: Eating Among Teens, a comprehensive study of obesity and nutrition among adolescents in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area. It was designed to examine the prevalence of fast food purchases for family meals and the association between eating fast food for dinner and home food availability, dietary intake, and weight status. Out of the 4,746 adolescents that completed surveys for Project EAT, 902 were also selected to have their parents interviewed for this study.

Fifty-one percent of families surveyed reported eating fast food as a family meal one to two times a week. Seven percent said they had fast food for dinner three to four times a week.

For teens and parents, higher frequency of fast food meals was associated with eating significantly fewer fruits and vegetables and drinking less milk. More fast food around the dinner table also meant pantry shelves were stocked with more salty snacks and soda, creating poor access to healthy foods at home. Parents who ate fast food often were more likely to be overweight than those who ate it less.

"There are other options for fast meals that can be prepared at home and contain healthy foods, such as vegetables," said Boutelle. "Limiting fast food intake at home is one way families can attempt to improve eating habits and the overall health of the family."
Project EAT: Eating Among Teens was designed to investigate the factors influencing the eating habits of adolescents, to determine if youth are meeting national dietary recommendations, and to explore dieting and physical activity patterns among youth. The project strives to build a greater understanding of the socioeconomic, personal, and behavioral factors associated with diet and weight-related behavior during adolescence so more effective nutrition interventions can be developed.

The study was supported by the Maternal and Child Health Program, Health Resources and Services Administration, and the Department of Health and Human Services.

University of Minnesota

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