In today's on-the-run society, the traditional sit-down family meal has pretty much gone by the wayside. But researchers say restoring regular family meals can help teenage girls avoid dangerous eating disorders.

"It doesn't have to be a home-cooked meal. The idea is to bring people together," University of Minnesota researcher Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD, MPH, RD, says in a news release.

Armed with data from more than 4,700 ethnically diverse adolescent girls and boys, Neumark-Sztainer and colleagues examined family meal patterns and eating behaviors.

They found that those who regularly ate meals in a structured, positive atmosphere were less likely to show signs of eating disorders, such as vomiting, chronic dieting, and using diet pills.

Nearly 18 percent of girls who ate one to two family meals each week showed signs of eating disorder behaviors. This number fell to 9 percent of girls who had family meals three to four times a week. Girls who ate five family meals weekly had an even lower risk of eating disorder behaviors. While boys also benefited from the family meals, the association between eating disorder tendencies and family meals was not as strong.

"Making family meals a priority, in spite of scheduling difficulties, emerged as the most consistent protective factor for disordered eating," the authors write in the November issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Researchers suggest that parents keep conversation light and positive at the dinner table, especially if their children have issues surrounding food.

By Kelli Miller Stacy, reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

SOURCES: Neumark-Sztainer, D. Journal of Adolescent Health, November 2004; vol 35: pp 350-359. News release, University of Minnesota.