An adolescent girl who regularly has family meals is less likely to suffer and go on to suffer from an eating disorder, or consume laxatives, diet pills, or take some extreme measure to control her weight, according to an article in Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine (JAMA/Archives).

The incidence of binge eating and self-induced vomiting is generally higher as a youth progresses from adolescence to adulthood, explain the authors. “Disordered eating behaviors are associated with a number of harmful behavioral, physical and psychological consequences, including poorer dietary quality, weight gain and obesity onset, depressive symptoms and the onset of eating disorders. Thus, it is important to identify strategies for the prevention of disordered eating behaviors.”

Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, and team looked at 2,516 adolescent children from 31 Minnesota schools. The children completed two surveys – one in the classroom in 1999, and another one that was mailed to them in 2004. They were asked how frequently they ate with their families, what their BMI (body mass index) was, how connected they felt with their family, and their eating behaviors.

Teenage girls who ate with their families at least five times each week in 1999 were substantially less likely to report using extreme measures, such as using diuretics or making themselves vomit to control their weight in 2004, this was despite such factors as sociodemographics, BMI and family connectedness.

The reasons for the sex difference are unclear, the authors wrote. “Perhaps boys who engage in regular family meals are different in some way that increases their risk for disordered eating behaviors. There is also the possibility that adolescent boys and girls have different experiences at family meals. For example, girls may have more involvement in food preparation and other food-related tasks, which may play a protective role in the development of disordered eating behaviors. Finally, family meals may offer more benefits to adolescent girls, who may be more sensitive to and likely to be influenced by interpersonal and familial relationships than are adolescent boys.”

The findings that emanated from this and previous studies should encourage us to find ways of helping families eat meals together, the authors say. “Health care professionals have an important role to play in reinforcing the benefits of family meals, helping families set realistic goals for increasing family meal frequency given schedules of adolescents and their parents, exploring ways to enhance the atmosphere at family meals with adolescents and discussing strategies for creating healthful and easy-to-prepare family meals,” they conclude. “Schools and community organizations should also be encouraged to make it easier for families to have shared mealtimes on a regular basis.”

“Family Meals and Disordered Eating in Adolescents. Longitudinal Findings From Project EAT”
Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD, MPH, RD; Marla E. Eisenberg, ScD, MPH; Jayne A. Fulkerson, PhD; Mary Story, PhD, RD; Nicole I. Larson, MPH, RD
Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2008;162(1):17-22.
Click here to view abstract online

Written by – Christian Nordqvist