According to reports eating frequent meals with families makes adolescent girls less likely to take diet pills, laxatives or other extreme measures to control their weight five years later. This appears in the January issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.
As youth progress from adolescence into adulthood, disordered eating behaviors—including binge eating and self-induced vomiting—become more common, according to background information in the article. "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," the authors write. "Thus, it is important to identify strategies for the prevention of disordered eating behaviors."
Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., and colleagues at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, studied 2,516 adolescents at 31 Minnesota schools. Participants completed two surveys—an in-class survey in 1999 and a mailed survey in 2004—regarding how often they ate with their families as well as their body mass index, feelings of family connectedness and eating behaviors.
Among teen girls, those who ate five or more meals with their families each week in 1999 were significantly less likely to report using extreme measures (such as self-induced vomiting and diuretics) to control their weight in 2004, regardless of their sociodemographic characteristics, body mass index or family connectedness. However, among adolescent boys, regular family meals did not predict lower levels of disordered eating behaviors five years later.
The reasons for the sex difference are unclear, the authors note. "Perhaps boys who engage in regular family meals are different in some way that increases their risk for disordered eating behaviors," they write. "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."
Given the findings of this and other studies and the prevalence of disordered eating among teen girls, it is important to find ways to help families eat meals together, the authors note. "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."