We’ve all done it; grabbed our plate to sit in front of the TV or gobbled down our dinner standing at the kitchen counter, scrolling through social media or emails. We think we’re saving time, but this approach to eating could be making us fat – and stressed.

We know that eating at the table means we’re more likely to consume less. Recent research has shown that, when we eat in front of the television, not only do we consume more at that particular meal but, incredibly, we also tend to take in more calories later that day.

It’s also been proven that sitting down to eat takes us out of the fight-or-flight mode that so many of inhabit throughout the day. Sitting down to eat an evening meal puts us into ‘relaxation mode’, and our bodies know it; our parasympathetic nervous system gets activated (see more below*). Not only that, the social connection it provides with our loved ones is essential to our wellbeing.

Time to Relearn the Habit?

Two decades ago, it was common for most Irish families to eat their evening meals together; eating at the table was the norm. My father worked late so we would eat without him but, at weekends, he would make a concerted effort to get us all around the table. I would throw my eyes upwards in true teenage fashion, but I also secretly enjoyed that time with my family. It wasn’t always about discussing how our day went, or world politics; sometimes it was just about having some light conversations about, well, just about anything.

So I’m mindful about that when rearing my own children. But I know it needs attention, especially since my children so often want to hop off the table the minute they chew their last bite! Whoa, slow down. ‘Isn’t it supposed to be about slowing down?’ I hear myself think.

Nowadays, some homes don’t even have a dining table. In our clinics, I am often shocked to hear that people are eating their dinner in front of the television, not just now and again, but every evening. Even worse is the habit of eating food in the car – in fact, according to recent research from the States, apparently one in five meals are eaten in a car by Americans.

Please, let’s not follow suit (we know the obesity rates in the States are alarming and sadly, we are following behind but I hope eating in cars isn’t going to be next…unless, of course your job is on the road and there just is no choice).

I remember particularly well one client I had who used to eat every evening meal on his lap in front of the TV. He thought I was mad, initially, when I suggested he eat in silence at the table, especially because he lived on his own and he just couldn’t see himself doing it. But, after just one week of trying this new habit, he was converted. He said it slowed him right down in his eating and, not only that, it also gave him some ‘meditative time’, to sit and relax – and decompress from the day a little – before the television went on.

That man went on to lose three stone and, better still, he was still maintaining it two years later.

What about our Children?

Recent, fascinating data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that students who do not regularly eat with their parents are significantly more likely to be truant at school.

Also, children who do not eat dinner with their parents at least twice a week also were 40 per cent more likely to be overweight compared to those who do, as outlined in a research presentation given at the European Congress on Obesity in Bulgaria in 2014. On the contrary, children who do eat dinner with their parents five or more days a week have less trouble with drugs and alcohol, eat healthier, show better academic performance, and report being closer with their parents than children who eat dinner with their parents less often, according to a study conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

So, if not for ourselves, let’s start eating at the table for our children, at the very least – even if that means just twice a week.

*The Parasympathetic System: The parasympathetic nervous system is one of three divisions of the autonomic nervous system. Sometimes called the rest and digest system, when activated our saliva production increases, digetstive enzymes are released, our heart rate drops and our muscles relax. It allows us to digest our food, destress and sleep soundly. In a way, we should ideally only eat when in this state – both for our digestion but also for our brains – but particularly when eating our evening meal.

Blog Post by Maebh Coyle