Family meals benefit health

Hayley Odom

Eating broccoli salad or hamburger casserole might not be every teen’s idea of family bonding, but a new study shows it can influence healthy eating habits in adolescents.

In a study published this month, University researchers found adolescent girls were less likely to engage in extreme weight-control behaviors, such as induced vomiting and chronic dieting, when they ate meals regularly with their families.

The study, which was part of a larger research venture called Project Eating Among Teens, surveyed 4,746 ethnically diverse Twin Cities adolescents’ eating habits and family meal patterns.

Lead researcher and epidemiology professor Dianne Neumark-Sztainer said family meals provide an opportunity for

parents to connect with children. If a teen is having problems, she said, meal times give parents a chance to detect them earlier. It also allows parents to become role models for healthier eating, Neumark-Sztainer said.

The study did not include information on the type of meals served at the dinner table.

“The recommendation is to eat three to four family meals together each week,” she said. “Every family has to find what works for them.”

Balancing family time, work and other commitments can be difficult, she said, and parents can be creative to make family meals a priority.

Researcher and School of Nursing professor Jayne Fulkerson said there is a lot of pressure on young women to be slim, which puts them at risk for eating disorders.

“Family meals might be one way to have parents more aware of dieting and eating disorder behaviors,” she said.

Neumark-Sztainer said society puts pressure on teens to diet and can also encourage them to eat large amounts of junk food.

“The family needs to serve as filters to help teens resist these pressures,” she said.

She said parents should foster a positive environment filled with healthy choices and options. This can include encouraging children to get involved in sports, drinking milk instead of pop at dinner and not paying for certain magazine subscriptions, she said.

Keeping teens’ experiences at the dinner table is also important, she said. Parents should avoid controversial topics such as grades, chores and comments about weight at the dinner table, she said. They invite a negative stigma which can become associated with eating, she said.

School of Social Work professor Laura Abrams said she was not surprised by the results of the research.

“It’s one piece of the puzzle that will help an adolescent not develop an eating disorder,” she said.

But she said that even in a healthy family environment, adolescents can still develop eating disorders.

Food science and nutrition professor Joanne Slavin said she thinks food needs to be a positive reinforcement in adolescents’ lives. She said it is difficult for teens to develop healthy eating habits if their families provide poor nutritional support.

“Kids have to try things 10 times before they like it,” she said. “It’s really important to have parents interested in nutrition.”