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Family Meals Curb Teen Eating Disorders

Teenage Girls Who Eat With Their Families Are Less Likely to Resort to Drastic Dieting Measures
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Jan. 7, 2008 -- Teenage girls who eat meals with their families may develop healthier eating habits and avoid eating disorders like bulimia, according to a new study.

Researchers found teenage girls who ate five or more family meals per week were less likely to resort to extreme dieting measures like using diet pills or laxatives, binge eating, and vomiting to control their weight.

The results suggest that encouraging family meals may be an effective way to combat the growing problem of eating disorders among teenage girls.

(Do you have a family meal with your kids? Why or why not? Join the discussion on the Parenting: Preteens and Teenagers message board.)

Family Meals Promote Healthy Eating

In the study, published in the January issue of Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, researchers surveyed 2,516 adolescents at 31 Minnesota schools in 1999 and again in 2004. The students answered questions about how often they ate with their families as well as their body mass index (BMI, a measure of weight in relation to height), eating behaviors, and feelings of family connectedness.

The results showed that teenage girls who reported eating five or more family meals each week in 1999 were much less likely to report using extreme dieting measures that could potentially lead to an eating disorder to control their weight five years later.

For example, 26% of girls who ate family meals fewer than five times a week reported using self-induced vomiting and use of laxatives, diet pills, or diuretics to control their weight compared with 17% of those who ate five or more family meals per week. The protective effect of family meals persisted regardless of the girls' socioeconomic status, body mass index, or feelings of family connectedness.

Researchers say these extreme weight control measures are associated with a number of negative physical and psychological effects as well as eating disorders.


Same Effect Not Found in Teenage Boys

The same relationship, however, was not found among teenage boys. Regular family meals were not associated with lower rates of extreme dieting measures among the girls' male classmates.

Researcher Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD, MPH, RD, and colleagues at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis say the reasons behind the gender difference are unclear.

"There is also the possibility that adolescent boys and girls have different experiences at family meals," write the researchers. "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."

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