Study finds good impact from sharing family meal

Minneapolis Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS — Girls who eat with family are less likely to drink, smoke or use pot five years later, University of Minnesota researchers found.

For adolescent girls, the positive impact of sharing regular family meals appears to last throughout their teenage years. Those who ate with their families at least five times a week during middle school were much less likely to drink, smoke or use marijuana five years later, university researchers found in a study published this week.

But the same was not true for boys. For reasons that the researchers could not explain, regular family meals had no influence on their later substance abuse.

The research is the latest in a series of studies that may be helping to revive the family dinner hour in the United States. Researchers have proved the power of regular family meals to protect kids from unhealthy behavior — everything from eating disorders to addiction and suicidal thinking. Some previous studies also have shown that the impact is much greater on girls than boys.

The study’s lead author said she could only speculate on why boys were not affected. “It’s surprising, and as a parent of both a son and a daughter I’m a little at a loss for what to do,” said Marla Eisenberg, an assistant professor at the Minnesota university’s School of Public Health who studies adolescent health.

Other research has shown that girls and boys relate differently to their families, she said. Girls could be picking up on subtle positive messages and influence from adults that boys miss, she said.

Family meals are a time to check in, as well as time for parents to be role models, Eisenberg said. “This is where they see where their kids are at, if they are veering to the risky side. Parents can be on top of that early on.”

“That connection with caring adults is the most protective factor for kids,” said David Walsh, head of the National Institute on Media and the Family, and the author of a book on teenage development.

This study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, relies on surveys of 800 Minnesota school kids taken five years apart. The first, conducted when they were in middle school, found that kids who ate regular family meals consumed more fruits and vegetables, were less depressed and less likely to smoke or use drugs or alcohol.

The second survey was, taken when those same kids were teenagers. It found that those family meals eaten during middle school seemed to have a protective effect on girls, regardless of what the researchers described as family connectedness.

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