Family Meals Protect Against Eating Disorders

Healthnotes Newswire (February 28, 2008)—The simple act of sharing a family meal might go a long way toward promoting healthier eating habits in girls, reports a study in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.

More than 2,500 adolescents were interviewed about disordered eating behaviors and their family eating patterns. Among girls, those who shared five or meals per week with their family were 29% less likely to practice extreme weight control measures (including inducing vomiting or taking diet pills, laxatives, and diuretics) than those girls who shared family meals less often. Family meals didn’t seem to protect boys from developing eating disorders.

Eating disorders—anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and compulsive overeating—involve severe disturbances in eating behaviors. For many people, eating disorders develop as a response to low self-esteem or as an attempt to find some control in their lives. Girls are affected by eating disorders about seven times more often than boys. It’s estimated that 50% of girls between 11 and 13 years old consider themselves overweight and 80% of 13-year-olds girls have tried to lose weight.

Tips for helping kids develop healthy food attitudes

• Foster self-confidence—Let children know that you love them for who they are, not what they look like.

• Set a good example—Model healthy eating patterns and avoid talking negatively about your own body.

• Eat more meals together—Have kids help with meal preparation; if possible, plant, harvest, and cook foods from your own garden.

• Help children to recognize their body’s cues—Encourage them to eat when hungry, and to pass on food when they’re not.

Children of families who eat together regularly are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol and tend to have higher levels of psychosocial well-being—in other words, they’re happier. Coming together for meals gives families a chance to talk about what’s going on their lives and to share in the preparation of the food that nourishes them.

In her new book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver makes a case for eating more home-cooked meals together as a family: “Family time is at a premium for most of us, and legitimate competing interests can easily crowd out cooking. Cooking and eating with children teaches them civility and practical skills they can use later on to save money and stay healthy. [It is] the great divide between good eating and bad.”

(Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 2008;162:17–22)

Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Rhode Island and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. She cofounded South County Naturopaths in Wakefield, RI. Dr. Beauchamp practices as a birth doula and lectures on topics including whole-foods nutrition, detoxification, and women’s health.

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