After battling and beating anorexia as a teenager, my mother made a few understandable missteps when it came to modeling a healthy body image for me. During my adolescence, I watched her mood rise and fall inversely with the numbers on the scale and, as a high school senior, saw the thrill on her face when, after dieting away 30 pounds, she discovered that she and I both weighed 118 pounds. Yet she must have done something fundamentally right, because I've always been pretty satisfied with my body—even as the pounds creep on—nurturing it with healthful foods, a bit of yoga, and moderate workouts. And I've never dieted, not even once, despite having written a host of weight-loss articles and diet books.
Perhaps it was all those family dinners that my mother (and sometimes my father) served like clockwork at 6:30 p.m. A new study published today in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine finds that teenage girls who frequently eat meals with their families are less apt to use laxatives, diet pills, and purging to control their weight. About 17 percent of girls surveyed who ate five or more family meals each week engaged in extreme dieting behaviors compared with 26 percent of those who ate fewer family meals, according to the study of more than 2,500 Minnesota adolescents.
Interestingly, family meals didn't make a difference when it came to boys—though girls were three times as likely to use dangerous dieting behaviors in the first place. The researchers don't know why but speculate that girls might need the family bonding time more than boys. Girls also might be more involved in food preparation and thus more apt to benefit from lessons about proper portion sizes and how to balance a meal.
Though I can't pull off those nightly family dinners, my three kids get two leisurely family meals every weekend in observance of the Jewish Sabbath. We spend a few hours at the table hearing the blow-by-blow of gym hockey games or the injustice of teachers' scheduling four tests in one day. My 12-year-old daughter, in particular, values these meals, happiest when it's just the five of us and no guests to take the focus off of family time. While I can't recall what my parents, brother, and I discussed around the kitchen table, I remember the pleasure I felt and how it didn't matter at all when my kitchen-challenged dad overcooked the rice.