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U of M research finds disordered eating less common among teen girls who regularly eat family meals

MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (Jan. 8, 2008) Adolescent girls who frequently eat meals with their families appear less likely to use diet pills, laxatives, or other extreme measures to control their weight five years later, according to research led by Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., lead investigator of Project Eating Among Teens (Project EAT) at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.

Neumark-Sztainer and Project EAT colleagues studied 2,516 adolescents at 31 Minnesota schools over the course of five years. Participants completed two surveysan in-class survey in 1999 and a mailed survey in 2004regarding 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 measuresincluding binge eating and self-induced vomitingto control their weight in 2004, regardless of their sociodemographic characteristics, body mass index, or family connectedness. Among adolescent boys, regular family meals did not predict lower levels of disordered eating behaviors five years later.

The reasons for the gender differences are unclear. Boys who engage in regular family meals may be different in some way that increases their risk for disordered eating behaviors. It is also possible 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. Girls also may be more sensitive to, and likely to be influenced by, interpersonal and familial relationships present at family meals than adolescent boys.

Given the findings of this and other studies and the prevalence of disordered eating among teen girls, the researchers conclude that it is important to find ways to help families eat meals together. 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, said Neumark-Sztainer. Schools and community organizations should also be encouraged to make it easier for families to have shared mealtimes on a regular basis.


Contact: Laura Stroup
University of Minnesota

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