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A teenage girl and her mother digging into a salad.

According to a new University of Minnesota study, teen girls who ate five or more meals with their families each week were less likely to engage in behavior like binge eating.

Family meals quell eating disorders in teenage girls

January 9, 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, lead investigator of Project Eating Among Teens (Project EAT) at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.

Among adolescent boys, however, regular family meals did not predict lower levels of future disordered eating behaviors.

Neumark-Sztainer and her colleagues studied 2,516 adolescents at 31 Minnesota schools over the course of five years. Participants completed two surveys--an in-class survey in 1999 and a mailed survey in 2004--that asked about how often they ate with their families and their body mass index, feelings of family connectedness, and eating behaviors.

"Health care professionals have an important role to play in reinforcing the benefits of family meals," says Neumark-Sztainer. "Schools and community organizations should also be encouraged to make it easier for families to have shared mealtimes on a regular basis."

When looking at behavior over a five-year span, teen girls who ate five or more meals with their families each week in 1999 were significantly less likely to report engaging in extreme behavior like binge eating and self-induced vomiting in 2004. Adolescent boys did not show a similar pattern.

The reasons for the gender differences are unclear. It is 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 ... and discussing strategies for creating healthful and easy-to-prepare family meals," says Neumark-Sztainer. "Schools and community organizations should also be encouraged to make it easier for families to have shared mealtimes on a regular basis."