“To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art,” said the 17th-century writer FranÁois de La Rochefoucauld. And there are many facets of this intelligence that comes to benefit our good health.
This past week, millions of family dining room tables, kitchens and restaurant tables —as well as picnic tables — welcomed family and friends of all ages as they joined together in the spring and hope celebrations of Passover and Easter. And along with thoughtful, delicious meals, there are great health benefits that just gathering together as family and friends around a dining table provide —benefits that rank right up there with nutritious heart- and mind-healthy foods.
Yes, generally when we think about health benefits of eating, we typically consider what we should —or should not —eat; or what nutritious value is within what we are consuming; or calculating how much salt or sugar and even how much we should be eating. However, experts agree — along with the prospect of the eating experience being delicious and enjoyable —gathering around a dining table together has far reaching physical and mental health benefits, for everyone of all ages. At the table, we share stories, build upon relationships, learn from each other’s mistakes and triumphs; and not only create bonds that define us… but we are also architecting the hallmarks of our well-being. In fact, this time together benefits every aspect of your well-being — emotionally, physically, socially, occupationally, spiritually, intellectually and mentally —all of which acts and interacts in a way that contributes to our overall quality of life.
While for some, mealtime is sacred; over recent years, the time spent dining with family and friends has fallen to fewer occasions and too long a time in between. Today’s demands of conflicting schedules (long work hours, children’s activities and other responsibilities), dining together has become for many a luxury and lifestyle choice. And too, facts are that more people eat in front of their computers, their televisions, or on the run, rather than with others. Studies show that dining tables, when used to gather with one another, are great agents in living a healthier life.
The chronic outpouring of stress hormones can wreak havoc on our bodies. Science shows that it contributes to many of the leading causes of death amongst Americans — heart disease, certain cancers, and Alzheimer’s dementia. And chronic stress can also lead us down a path of weight gain due to “stress eating” and sleep disturbances, which, in and of itself, can pack on the pounds.
The good news is that “table conversation” has special qualities that make it different than when we talk on the phone or engage in meetings. It provides a time and place where we can relax and bond. So, whether you had a challenging day at work or school, increasing dynamics with an important relationship, a season filled with loss or chronic illness, or too many demands (with not enough time to do what you really need to do), connecting with family, friends, and peers around the dinner table can be a critical way to help us through these stressful times. And while dining together is by no means the only way to combat stress, it has certainly been shown as an important place to focus.
Important to All Age Groups
Multiple studies have demonstrated that frequent family dining is associated with a greater ability to problem solve; more complex thinking; higher self-esteem and grades; and lower rates of teen smoking, drinking, illegal drug use and prescription drug abuse.
Focusing on certain types of conversations — particularly narrative conversation, or the telling of stories — can be particularly helpful with children. Telling stories that allow them to express their thoughts and feelings, rather than just the facts, is associated with greater well-being.
And, too, parents should consider taking this opportunity to talk about their own childhood and family histories. The reason being, research shows that this makes children more resilient — they have a better capacity to bounce back from the slings and arrows that life can throw at each of us and better able to learn from challenges — while continuing to face issues with optimism.
Our Brain and Memory
Maintaining social interactions — or in other words, staying connected — is one of the most important lifestyle choices we can make (along with being physically active and eating a balanced diet) to decrease our risk for Alzheimer’s Dementia (AD). AD affects over 5 million Americans — this number is expected to triple by 2050 — and is the 6th leading cause of death. And, it has no cure, or medication to slow its progression or treat symptoms. Our greatest weapon at this time is to take proven measures to prevent it.
Although researchers are not certain what happens in the brain to produce the positive effects, it appears that social interaction has a beneficial impact on memory and cognitive function as people age. Some theories support that as we grow older, we have more difficulty switching between daydreaming and focused attention to important details. So, the more time the aging brain spends mentally stimulated and socially engaged with family and friends, the less switching is necessary.
Tips for planning time with family and friends
—Make a commitment to dine around a table with those you love —it is a commitment to your overall well-being
—Make preparing meals a group activity when it comes to going to the farmer’s market, grocery store, looking for new, exciting, and healthy recipes, and meal preparation. This provides an opportunity to bond and helps take the pressure off of one person. Additionally, for those with children, it teaches them numerous skills—how to shop for food, make healthy choices, plan, and take on responsibilities — that can have benefits later throughout their life.
—Make plans to celebrate special occasions together — whether Spring, an achievement, good news — it can be as simple as making plans to meet after accomplishing something challenging at work, to a wedding engagement.
—Plan ahead with friends and loved ones — consider, for example, the first Thursday (or Wednesday, or Sunday evening) of every month where everyone can break away from their hectic schedule and look forward to meeting for coffee or eating together.
—Plan a potluck with friends and family — this helps promote communal eating and, too, takes the pressure off of one person.
—Make a reservation — going out for a meal with friends, peers or family allows you to reap all the benefits of communal eating without any of the post-meal clean up (and the associated stress). And yes, it is wise to pick a spot that has healthy offerings, and remain cognizant of portion size.
As we gather with family and friends, we see that there is a common thread of themes that connects each and every one of us. All of these occasions center on universal human experiences such as love, sadness, joy, reverence, success and sacrifice. Gathering around a table is where we gain great health benefits as we entertain new worlds from others present — sharing where we live, between bites — and it offers far-reaching health benefits as we face the demands of our days.
And while it is important to eat healthy by watching portion size and what you are consuming —as one expert noted that even take-out makes for a good meal, so long as your family or friends are present. So to “eat intelligently,” one needs to understand the healthy benefits of eating together. Enjoy!!
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This article is for general information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions and cannot substitute for the advice from your medical professional. Dr. Nina has used all reasonable care in compiling the current information but it may not apply to you and your symptoms. Always consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions.