Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Importance of Eating Together - ​Cody C. Delistraty - The Atlantic

On the one hand, the topic of this article would seem to be nothing more than common sense.  Folks that eat together are happier and healthier.  This is not new news.  On the other hand, this article shows how difficult it is to "know" anything about the complex animal we call "humans".

"After my mother passed away and my brother went to study in New Zealand, the first thing that really felt different was the dinner table. My father and I began eating separately. We went out to dinners with our friends, ate sandwiches in front of our computers, delivery pizzas while watching movies. Some days we rarely saw each other at all. Then, a few weeks before I was set to leave for university, my father walked downstairs. "You know, I think we should start eating together even if it's just you and me," he said. "Your mother would have wanted that." It wasn't ideal, of course—the meals we made weren't particularly amazing and we missed the presence of Mom and my brother—but there was something special about setting aside time to be with my father. It was therapeutic: an excuse to talk, to reflect on the day, and on recent events. Our chats about the banal—of baseball and television—often led to discussions of the serious—of politics and death, of memories and loss. Eating together was a small act, and it required very little of us—45 minutes away from our usual, quotidian distractions—and yet it was invariably one of the happiest parts of my day."
"Sadly, Americans rarely eat together anymore. In fact, the average American eats one in every five meals in her car, one in four Americans eats at least one fast food meal every single day, and the majority of American families report eating a single meal together less than five days a week. It's a pity that so many Americans are missing out on what could be meaningful time with their loved ones, but it's even more than that. Not eating together also has quantifiably negative effects both physically and psychologically."

This is where the trouble begins.  There's not anything quantifiable about the data the author cites.  This is not good science.  It's just correlation, which does not imply causation.  For example, it's long been known that wealthy people live longer than the poor.  What is not known is why - do they choose better lifestyle variables?  Probably.  Which ones matter?  No one knows.  I'd guess that on the whole they eat better food, smoke less, and sleep more/better.  Guessing is just a small first step in science.

"Children who do not eat dinner with their parents at least twice a week also were 40 percent 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 this May."

OK, but why?  Answer:  we don't know.

"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."

Fascinating correlation.  I'm glad I eat with my family almost every night thanks to my wife's focus on this matter.  But this correlation does not tell us anything about prediction or control, which is what science is about.

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