Family Meals: One Deterrent to Disordered Eating?

Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review
May/June 2005 Volume 16, Number 3
©2005 Gürze Books

Regular, structured and harmonious family meals with all family members present may play a role in preventing unhealthy weight-control behaviors among teens, according to the results of a recent study (J Adolesc Health 2004; 35:350).

Many factors can contribute to unhealthy weight-control practices and other disordered eating patterns among teenagers, according to Dr. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer and colleagues at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. These include societal pressures to be thin, parents’ attitudes toward weight, family relationships, peer dieting practices, and perceptions of body image. However, the structure and atmosphere of meals at home are important as well, according to the researchers.

After surveying 4,476 ethnically diverse adolescents from public middle and senior high schools participating in the Project EAT (Eating Among Teens) study, and gathering anthropometric data as well, the Minnesota researchers found several patterns of disordered eating related to family meals. Adolescent girls who reported more frequent family meals, high priority of family meals, a positive atmosphere at meals, and more structured meals had less risk for engaging in unhealthy weight control behaviors and chronic dieting. The atmosphere at family meals was also inversely related with binge eating. Girls who ate three to four family meals per week had approximately one-third the risk of extreme weight control practices compared to girls who did not eat any family meals in the past week.

Among teenage boys, the frequency of family meals and all measures of the environment of family meals were inversely associated with extreme weight-control behaviors. The priority given to family meals and the atmosphere of the meals were inversely associated with less extreme unhealthy weight-control behaviors. Any association with binge eating was inconsistent.

Family meal patterns were inversely associated with chronic dieting among the girls but not among the boys. Gender differences may have been a factor, owing to increased sensitivity of girls to family nuances, differential interpretation of the term “dieting” used in this study, and or/lower frequencies of boys reporting chronic dieting than girls, according to the authors.

Binge eating

The patterns of association between family meals were somewhat different for binge eating. Among girls, the strongest correlate of binge eating was the atmosphere at family meals (this factor did not, however, remain statistically significant after taking into account overall family connectedness). The findings suggest that girls may respond to a negative familial environment through binge eating. Alternatively, girls who are already binge eating may perceive the family environment as more negative. The same pattern was not reported among boys.

Clinical applications

Findings from this study suggest that family meals have an important part to play in preventing unhealthy weight-control behaviors among teenagers. The authors suggest that healthcare providers working with youth and their parents take the time to discuss family meal patterns and explore realistic, real-world strategies for improving the environment of family meals.

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