The fight against the obesity epidemic in the U.S. may take more than just cutting back on food portions and counting calories. Americans may have to modify their dining habits. Families who take part in poor dinner rituals such as eating while watching television are linked to a high body mass index (BMI) and weight gain, according to a recent study.

Children are found to be predisposed to factors that influence body weight, such as poor diets, watching television in excess, and little physical activity and sleep in the home. The typical Western diet — frequent, large meals high in refined grains, red meat, unhealthy fats, and sugary drinks — is considered to be one of the largest factors responsible for the obesity epidemic in the nation, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. However, too much television — linked to encouraging the unhealthy Western diet through food and beverage advertising — in combination with eating dinner create a higher risk for obesity.

Publishing in the journal Obesity, researchers sought to observe how poor dinner habits in families influence weight status in children. The study examined the relationship between everyday family dinner rituals and the BMI of 190 parents and 148 children. Parent participants completed a questionnaire regarding the whole family’s mealtime habits. The parents were asked questions such as how many days they engaged in mealtime activities, such as discussing their day, during a typical week. Upon completion of the questionnaire, the weight and height of both parents and children were recorded.

A strong correlation was found between dinner rituals and the BMI of both the parents and the child. High BMIs were associated with eating with the TV on, while eating at the dinner table in the dining room or kitchen was linked to lower BMIs for both children and parents.

The researchers did find a link between gender and BMI. Girls who helped their parents prepare dinner were more likely to have a higher BMI; this correlation was not found among boys. Boys who engaged in more social dinners generally had lower BMI, especially in families where everyone stayed at the table until everyone finished eating. This association was also found in parents.

"The ritual of where one eats and how long one eats seems to be the largest driver," said Brian Wansink, co-author of the study and professor at Cornell University's Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Medical Xpress reports.

The link found between BMI and dinner habits in the study does not mean there is a cause-and-effect relationship. But the findings do suggest that family interactions are strong influences on children's eating habits.

"By focusing on family dining rituals, this research departs from the more food-centric approaches," said Wansink. "Family meals and their rituals might be an underappreciated battleground to fight obesity."

In a similar study published in the journal Economics and Human Biology, researchers found that just devoting a few extra minutes to regular family mealtimes can help children in low-income families to obtain and maintain a normal, healthy weight. Children who engaged with their families over a 20-minute meal four times a week were found to weigh significantly less than kids who left the dinner table after 15 to 17 minutes.

Currently in the U.S., obesity affects 17 percent of all children and adolescents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Childhood obesity can lead to an increased risk of prediabetes, bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and poor self-esteem.