As children become teenagers, it may be more challenging to regularly include them in family meals, but doing so is key to heading off problems such as eating disorders, obesity, and inadequate nutrition in adolescence.
Parents may not be able to get their families together around the table seven days a week, but if they can schedule three family meals a week, they will safeguard their teens' health in significant ways. Researchers from the University of Illinois advise family members to pull out their schedules and find out which nights they can commit to, then follow through and make family meals on those nights a priority.
In the June issue of Pediatrics, the researchers reviewed 17 recent studies on eating patterns and nutrition involving more than 182,000 children and adolescents. The results showed that teens who eat at least five meals a week with their families are 35% less likely to engage in disordered eating than teens who don't. The researchers defined disordered eating as binging and purging, taking diet pills, self-induced vomiting, using laxatives or diuretics, fasting, eating very little, skipping meals, and/or smoking cigarettes to lose weight.
For children and adolescents with disordered eating, mealtime provides a setting in which parents can recognize early signs and take steps to prevent detrimental patterns from turning into full-blowing eating disorders.
Children who ate at least three family meals a week were also 12% less likely to be overweight than those who ate with their families less often. And they were 24% more likely to eat healthy foods and have healthy eating habits than those who didn't share three meals with their families.
Families who share meals together are likely to be more connected, which may encourage teens to talk within their families about unhealthy behaviours they've slipped into and other problems they're experiencing.
The study also showed that teens are interested in participating in family mealtimes and believe that they eat healthier when they share meals with their families. According to the researchers, research on adolescent development indicates that teens want to stay connected with their parents.
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