Kids who sit down to eat with their families are less likely to be overweight and eat unhealthy foods, according to U.S. researchers who call for more shared meals.

In the first report to combine all existing studies on the issue, they found kids who eat with their parents at least three times a week had 12% lower odds of being overweight.

The children were also 20% less likely to eat junk food, 35% less likely to have eating problems like skipping meals or bingeing, and 24% more likely to eat vegetables and other healthy foods.

"Sitting down together as a family, there are nutritional benefits from that," said Amber Hammons, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana, Champaign, whose findings are published in the journal Pediatrics.

Still, the 17 studies reviewed in the new work were based on observations, not actual experiments, and Hammons acknowledged that they don't prove shared meals trim waistlines.
"It's just an association," she told Reuters Health. "Families who sit down together could be healthier to begin with."

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has more than tripled over the past 3 decades, reaching close to 20% in 2008.

The extra pounds may weigh down on kids' self-esteem and can set them up for health problems such as heart disease and diabetes.

The new report is based on findings from nearly 183,000 children about 2 to 17 years of age. While those studies yielded mixed results and weren't easy to compare, overall they show regular family meals are tied to better nutrition.

It's not clear why that is, Hammons said, but it's possible that parents may influence and monitor their kids more during shared meals.

"We also know that families that sit down together are less likely to eat high-calorie food," Hammons added.

As a result, the researchers encourage families to spend more time together around the dinner table.

"It doesn't have to be every day," Hammons said. "We know that families are very busy."