According to an article published in the November 2004 issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health, findings from a recent study on adolescent eating habits suggest that family meals have the potential to play a role in the prevention of unhealthy weight control behaviors among youth.

Unhealthy weight control practices and other disordered eating patterns are prevalent among adolescents, and familial factors clearly contribute to the onset of disordered eating practices in adolescence. Questions remain about the identification of specific familial factors that can have an impact on adolescents and are potentially amenable to change via brief interventions.

The current study examines associations between family meal patterns and disordered eating practices among adolescent girls and boys. The study population included 4,746 ethnically diverse adolescents from urban and suburban school districts in the St. Paul/Minneapolis area of Minnesota. The mean age of the study population was 14.9 years. Data were collected in schools during the 1998-99 school year.

The authors found that:

For girls, after adjusting for Body Mass Index (BMI) and sociodemographic characteristics, more frequent family meals were protective against engaging in all forms of disordered eating (extreme and less extreme unhealthy weight control behaviors, binge eating with loss of control, and chronic dieting). A more structured family meal environment was protective against unhealthy weight-control behaviors and chronic dieting.

For girls, after also adjusting for family connectedness and weight-specific pressures within the home, more frequent family meals and high priority of family meals remained strongly associated with lower levels of unhealthy weight-control behaviors and chronic dieting. Increased structure of family meals was associated with lower levels of unhealthy weight-control behaviors. A positive atmosphere at meals was only protective against extreme unhealthy weight-control behaviors.

For boys, after adjusting for the same characteristics, more frequent family meals, high priority of family meals, and a positive atmosphere at family meals were protective against unhealthy weight-control behaviors but not against binge eating or chronic dieting.

The authors conclude that “health providers working with youth and their parents could take the time to discuss family meal patterns and explore realistic strategies for increasing family meal frequency and improving family meal environment.”

(Source: Neumark-Sztainer D, Wall M, Story M, et al. 2004. Are family meal patterns associated with disordered eating behaviors among adolescents? Journal of Adolescent Health 35(5):350-359)