Family dinners benefit girls

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Somewhere in the hectic rush among homework, soccer practice and piano lessons, parents may want to sit down with their daughters and eat more meals together.

A new study finds that teenage girls who ate five or more meals per week with their families were significantly less likely to engage in extreme dieting measures, such as self-induced vomiting and taking diet pills or laxatives. This was true regardless of sociodemographics, body-mass index or family connectedness.

Regular family meals “may be one way to protect our girls,” said Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, a professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis, who led a team of colleagues in conducting the study.

Although it’s “not enough on its own” to discourage the problematic weight-control behavior, “it does seem to be strongly associated,” she said.

Her team focused on 2,516 boys and girls at 31 Minnesota schools. The middle-schoolers and high-schoolers completed two surveys — an in-class survey in 1999 and a mailed survey in 2004. They were asked about meals with their families, their body makeup, feelings about their family and eating behaviors.

The study — published in this month’s Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, a publication of the Journal of the American Medical Association — found that girls who ate regular meals with their families were one-third less likely to exhibit extreme weight-control behavior five years later than those who didn’t.

Specifically, among girls who ate fewer than five meals per week with their families, 26 percent exhibited the extreme behavior five years later, compared with 17 percent of girls who ate five meals or more per week with their families and exhibited such behavior down the line.

The professor didn’t have a definitive answer for the correlation, but said family meals could help by parents’ offering healthy food, allowing time for family connecting and catching problematic eating behaviors.

Notably, however, the study found that regular family meals didn’t predict lower levels of extreme weight-control behavior among teenage boys.

Although the reason is not clear, the study listed a few possibilities, including that girls “may be more sensitive to, and likely to be influenced by, interpersonal and familial relationships” than boys.

Lynn Grefe, chief executive officer of the National Eating Disorders Association, said the University of Minnesota study “makes sense” and encouraged more studies like it.

She added, however, that parents can harm children during regular family meals if they obsess about the fat content of food.

Disordered eating is associated with other harmful consequences, such as poorer dietary quality, depressive symptoms and the onset of chronic eating disorders, the study noted. Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder can occur at any age, but are much more common during the teens or early 20s, and predominantly affect females, according to the Mayo Clinic.

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