Purpose: To examine associations between family meal patterns (frequency, priority, atmosphere, and structure of family meals) and disordered eating (unhealthy weight control behaviors, binge eating, and chronic dieting) in adolescent girls and boys.
Methods: Survey and anthropometric data were collected from 4746 ethnically diverse adolescents from public middle and senior high schools who participated in the Project EAT study (Eating Among Teens). Variables of interest included family meal patterns and disordered eating behaviors. Logistic regressions were performed to examine associations between family meal patterns and disordered eating behaviors adjusting for body mass index, sociodemographic characteristics, family connectedness, and weight pressures within the home.
Results: In general, adolescents who reported more frequent family meals, high priority for family meals, a positive atmosphere at family meals, and a more structured family meal environment were less likely to engage in disordered eating. For example, 18.1% of girls who reported 1-2 family meals/week engaged in extreme weight control behaviors compared with 8.8% of girls who reported 3-4 family meals/week. Making family meals a priority, in spite of scheduling difficulties, emerged as the most consistent protective factor for disordered eating. Associations between family meal patterns and disordered eating behaviors tended to be stronger among girls than among boys. Family meal patterns were more consistently associated with unhealthy weight control behaviors than with chronic dieting and binge eating. Although associations between family meals and disordered eating were weakened after adjusting for more global familial factors, including family connectedness and weight-specific pressures within the home, a number of the associations remained statistically significant, suggesting an independent relationship between family meals and disordered eating.
Conclusion: Family meals have the potential to play an important role in the prevention of unhealthy weight control behaviors among youth. Findings suggest that attention needs to be directed toward increasing family meal frequency and creating a positive environment for family meals.