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Share Meals & Stress Less

Connections Support Quality Relationships

Families who eat together report less stress

By John Salak –

 

Sometimes it is the small things that matter most, even when it comes to a health issue like stress and its potential to generate heart disease and strokes. The American Heart Association, in fact, cites a simple and accessible stress-relieving practice that involves having regular meals with others.

The association based its advice on a recent survey of more than 1,000 adults, which revealed that 84 percent reported a desire to share meals more regularly with loved ones. Beyond this, nearly all parents surveyed said stress levels were significantly lessened in family members when they regularly connected over meals.

Reducing tension, anxiety and stress is no small matter. Not only are its potential medical consequences significant, but it also impacts tens of millions of Americans every year. The American Institute of Stress reports that 33 percent of Americans are subject to extreme stress; 77 percent claim it adversely impacts their physical health, and 73 percent note it undermines their mental well-being. Almost half of those polled also tied stress to their sleeping problems.

Sitting down together with loved ones is apparently one way to lower the anxiety volume.

“Sharing meals with others is a great way to reduce stress, boost self-esteem and improve social connection, particularly for kids,” reported Erin Michos, associate director of preventive cardiology at Johns Hopkins and a co-author of the American Heart Association’s statement on Psychological Health, Well-being, and the Mind-Heart-Body Connection. “Chronic, constant stress can also increase your lifetime risk of heart disease and stroke, so it is important for people to find ways to reduce and manage stress as much as possible, as soon as possible.”

The association’s survey also discovered meal-sharing benefits that extended beyond battling stress. Just over two-thirds of those surveyed reported that having dinner or lunch with friends and family underscored the importance of connecting with others. More than half noted it reminded them to slow down. The benefit windfall is that it promotes better nutrition as 59 percent claim they make better food choices when they’re with others.

“We know it’s not always as easy as it sounds to get people together at mealtime. Like other healthy habits, give yourself permission to start small and build from there,” Michos said. “Set a goal to gather friends, family or coworkers for one more meal together each week. If you can’t get together in person, think about how you can share a meal together over the phone or a computer.”

Not surprisingly, there are other benefits to meal-sharing as part of high-quality parenting practices, according to new research out of Penn State University. It can lay the foundation in adolescence for close parent-child relationships when the children become young adults.

The Penn State study claims to be one of the first to examine how changes in parental involvement, parental warmth and effective discipline during adolescence can help build a quality relationship between parents and their young adult children. The research involved surveying 1,631 participant families over an extended period that covered children in sixth and 12th grades and again at age 22.

“Our research showed that parenting can change a lot during the teenage years: parents often express less warmth and affection, spend less time with their teens and become harsher in their discipline. Parents that were able to maintain positive parenting and involvement laid the foundation for a close relationship when their teens became adults,” the study’s co-principal investigator Greg Fosco reported.

Connecting through regular meals is certainly one way to build this lasting foundation. Others reinforcing joint activities include playing sports, bike riding, exercising, going for a walk, gaming, cooking and attending events. Working on house projects together, talking about school and discussing the future also have a positive impact.

Beyond this, adolescents who experienced higher levels of parental warmth in the early teen years reported feeling more closeness and warmth with mothers and fathers when they were in their 20s, added Fosco, who is also an associate director of the Penn State’s Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center.

“This is a great reminder to say the important things in life, such as ‘I love you’ or ‘I care about you,’ or physical expressions such as a hug or a pat on the back,” he said.

The study also found that parents who were skilled at using effective discipline with adolescents had less conflictual relationships when their children were in their 20s.

“Parents should avoid harsh consequences and yelling at their teens, and work to stay calm and consistent in upholding family rules,” noted Shichen Fang, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology at Concordia University and former postdoctoral fellow at the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center. “Adolescents want to feel respected and treated like adults. It’s important to have clear reasons for family rules and consequences.”

 

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