ISLAMABAD  – Eating meals with their families helps keep children slimmer and healthier.

Previous studies have suggested that family mealtimes may act as a protective factor for much nutritional health related problems during childhood and adolescence, including issues overweight, unhealthy eating, and disordered eating, Health News reported.

Findings have been mixed with some studies reporting strong relations to health outcomes such as obesity, whereas others reporting no relation. These inconsistencies make it difficult to inform parents of the relation between family meals and health outcomes. Researchers in America pooled data from 17 earlier studies to look at the family’s contribution to positive outcomes as it relates to nutrition in children and adolescents.

The primary objective was to determine consistency and strength of effects across studies that examined overweight and obese, food consumption and eating patterns, and disordered eating. It’s important for parents to know what they can do, especially with obesity and eating habits; they want to know what role they can play. Through an Internet search in 2009, researchers obtained relevant studies involving almost 183,000 children and teens ranging from roughly 3 to 17 years old. They looked at the youths’ eating habits, weight, and whether they did anything harmful to control it.

They found that the frequency of shared family meals was significantly related to nutritional health in children and adolescents. Youngsters who joined family members regularly for meals were 24 percent more likely to eat healthy foods than children who rarely ate with their families. They were also less likely to suffer from eating disorders. Those who ate three or more meals a week with their families were 12 percent less likely to be overweight than those who ate few or no meals with their families, and 20 percent less likely to eat sweets, fried foods, soda, and other unhealthy foods, it was found.

Eating five or more meals together reduced the likelihood of poor nutrition by 25 percent, an analysis of eight of the studies revealed. Children who ate with their families also were 35 percent less likely to engage in disordered eating behaviours aimed at losing weight, such as binge-eating, purging, taking diet pills or laxatives, vomiting, skipping meals or smoking. Participants were deemed overweight if they had a body mass index (BMI) at or above the 85th percentile, meaning that they were heavier than 85 percent of children their age.

Eating two or more fruits and vegetables daily, and skipping soda, candy and fried foods were included as a measure of healthy nutrition. While the study suggests that eating together as a family confers a protective benefit on children, the reasons for that were unclear.

Some possibilities included the value of adult role models, and adult intervention before poor behaviours became bad habits. For children or adolescents with disordered eating, mealtimes may provide a setting in which parents can recognize early signs and take steps to prevent detrimental patterns from turning into full-blown eating disorders. Other research has found that meals prepared at home are more nutritious, with more fresh fruit and vegetables, and less fat, sugar and soda. But other factors such as communication during mealtime might also drive the positive influence of family meals on health. The study provides strong indications that shared family meals help boost nutritional intake, control body weight, and potentially prevent disordered eating patterns. Children may imitate their parents.

Older parents more likely to have an autistic child

Children born to a parent over age 35 are at greater risk for developing an autism spectrum disorder — but the risk is the same whether just one or both parents are older, according to a new study of Danish families.

“Parental age doesn’t appear to be synergistic. That is having an older mom and an older dad doesn’t increase risk more than having one or the other,” said Marissa King, a professor at the Yale School of Management, who was not involved in the study.

The findings throw a monkey wrench into the idea that perhaps older sperm or eggs have more mutations that could increase the odds of having a child develop autism. Erik Thorlund Parner at the University of Aarhus School of Public Health in Denmark said that if genetic problems arising from older sperm or eggs explain the results, then having both an older sperm and an older egg together should total up to an even higher risk of autism for the child. Yet Parner, who led the study, and his colleagues did not find a higher risk of autism among kids with two older parents compared with just one.

The researchers collected information on more than 9,500 children in Denmark who had been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.

These disorders range from mild Asperger’s Syndrome to severe mental retardation and social disability.

In the new study, kids born to fathers in their late thirties had up to a 28 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder than kids born to dads under age 35. The increase in risk was not tied to the mother’s age. For kids born to dads over age 40, the risk for developing an autism spectrum disorder was 37 to 55 percent greater than for kids of dads under age 35, and the mother’s age didn’t seem to matter.

According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, about 10 in 1,100 children have an autism spectrum disorder. A 55-percent increase in risk, for instance, would push that number up to about 15 out of every 1,100 children. Similar to the findings on dads, children whose moms had them in their late 30s were 21 to 37 percent more likely to develop autism than kids with moms under age 35, and the dad’s age did not change the numbers. And just like with dads over age 40, kids born to moms over age 40 were 28 to 65 percent more likely to have autism than kids with moms under age 35, regardless of the age of their dad.

Fewer kids dying from leukaemia: study

Kids with one type of leukaemia are living longer than they used to, most likely thanks to new drug combinations that mean fewer patients are relapsing after a first round of treatment.

In a study including more than 20,000 babies, kids and adolescents with the blood and bone marrow cancer, patients’ chances of surviving at least five years after their diagnosis increased from 84 percent in the early 1990s to over 90 percent a decade later.

“We knew that there was a positive trend (in survival), but there had been concerns that the rate of improvement was slowing down,” said Dr. Stephen Hunger from the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora, who worked on the study. In people with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, or ALL - the most common type of childhood cancer - the bone marrow makes too many immature white blood cells instead of producing the cells necessary to fight infections.

Fifty years ago, the disease killed almost everyone it struck within a few years. But survival rates steadily rose over the next decades as doctors gained more tools to treat leukaemia. The one exception was infants, who when they do get leukaemia, tend to have very aggressive disease. Only about half of infants survived five years after being diagnosed in both the early and later years of the study. The researchers calculated that infants accounted for only about two percent of all leukaemia cases during the study period, but for eight percent of deaths.