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Study: Distracted Dining as Harmful as Distracted Driving

A new study says distractions during dinner could derail the benefits of family mealtime.

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There's a new reason to restrict devices at the dinner table, and otherwise avoid trying to multitask during the family meal: A new study out of the University of Illinois says distracted dining is as harmful to your health as distracted driving is to your safety.

According to researchers, kids who aren't focused on their meals due to too much outside stimulus are at a higher risk for obesity. But it all starts with the parents.

To reach their conclusions, researchers videotaped 60 families at mealtimes and subjected half of them to noisy vacuum cleaning in the next room. The other half got to enjoy their dinner sans distraction. Participants' BMI, food consumption, and communication was measured during the meal.

Interestingly, parents' eating habits seemed to be more impacted by the distraction; they reached for more cookies than the group who was allowed to dine in peace.

Lead researcher Barbara H. Fiese, from the university's Family Resiliency Center, says this is significant because a parent's behavior sets the tone for the quality of a family's mealtime. She explains, "The noise did have a big effect on communication. Adults got up and down from the table a lot more and made fewer positive comments. They paid less attention to their children's concerns in conversation, and we know that kind of conversation is associated with a healthier weight in children."

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She adds, "If you're getting up and down because you're distracted during a meal, you're probably not able to pay attention to the kids' emotions or to model good responses to your hunger cues—noticing when you're full and not continuing to eat."

The takeaway? It's important for parents to focus on displaying healthy eating habits for their kids, and monitoring what kids are stuffing in their mouths. In a distracted eating environment, it becomes far more challenging to do so.

Fiese notes this new research adds to the growing body of evidence that eating as a family offers many benefits. But she says, "This study shows that it's not enough to encourage families to eat together regularly without identifying other factors that promote health. Distractions and disruptions may be part of a family environment that is habitually chaotic and unstructured. We know that children raised in chaotic family environments are at increased risk for becoming overweight or obese."

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Follow her on Twitter (@Spitupnsuburbs), where she chronicles her love of exercising and drinking coffee, but never simultaneously.