Family meals may lower girls' eating disorder risk

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Sitting down for regular family meals may protect teen girls from developing eating disorders, according to a new study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

Dr. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer and colleagues from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis found that adolescent girls who ate five or more meals each week with their families were approximately one third less likely to engage in extreme weight control behaviors, such as making themselves vomit, taking diet pills and abusing diuretics or laxatives than girls who ate less frequently with their families.

Some studies have suggested that family meals may help shield girls from developing unhealthy or extreme weight control behaviors, Neumark-Sztainer and her colleagues note, but this research has only looked at a single time point or has relied on past recall of eating habits.

To better understand the relationship, the researchers analyzed results of the Project EAT (Eating Among Teens) Study, in which 2,516 adolescent boys and girls completed a questionnaire in 1999 and 2004. The researchers hypothesized that study participants who reported eating more frequent family meals at the first assessment would be less likely to report disordered eating behavior five years later.

For girls, this was indeed the case; family meals reduced the likelihood of extreme weight control behaviors. But the link with binge eating, chronic dieting or unhealthy weight control behaviors, such as smoking, skipping meals, or fasting, wasn’t statistically significant after the researchers adjusted for other factors that could account for the relationship.

However, the researchers found that boys who ate with their families more often were actually at increased risk of unhealthy weight control behaviors. They speculate that boys who eat regularly with their families may have certain characteristics that predispose them to unhealthy eating habits, or that eating with family somehow benefits girls more than it does boys.

Past research has identified a number of benefits of family meals, the researchers note; however, the way that some families interact at mealtimes can actually promote unhealthy eating habits, they add.

“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,” Neumark-Sztainer and her colleagues conclude.

SOURCE: Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, January 2008.