Family Meals and Eating Disorders Something in Common

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There are a lot of distractions in our culture today (cell phones, iPads, laptops, the “need” to be busy, etc.) which have unfortunately seeped into the family meal. The kids are distracted, the parents are distracted and tired after working all day, so there is not a set meal time. Everyone eats whatever they can find when they are hungry.

I understand and sympathize with the desire to blow off the family meal due to fatigue, other pending engagements, or maybe even out of lack of gratitude from your family, but studies have shown that the family table is critical in combating eating disorders among teenagers, particularly among young girls. The “disordered eating behaviors” as one study calls them are: “unhealthy weight control practices and binge eating . . . self-induced vomiting and use of laxatives, diet pills, or diuretics.”

Not only are these practices a concern in our society today because of their high prevalence, but also because of the harmful behavioral, physical, and psychological consequences that stem from these behaviors. Project Eating Among Teens (Project EAT) followed thirty-one teenagers for five years, from late youth into adolescence and found that youth who lacked a regular family meal time were prone to unhealthy weight control practices which increased in intensity as the teen grew up, and these practices even followed them into adulthood!

Project EAT found that the use of extreme weight control behaviors increased from 14.5% to 23.9% among female participants as they grew from middle to late adolescence. The increase in risky weight control behaviors amongst the male participants was negligible.

Project EAT cited cross-sectional studies which suggest that adolescent females who engage in meal times with their families at least one or two times a week are less likely to engage in extreme weight control practices than their counterparts who do not eat with their families at all. What’s interesting to me—and I think it’s worth mentioning to you—is that regardless of household environment, economic background, and family dynamics, these statistics hold true. So, even if a family is hyper-focused on being “thin” and perceived as “in-shape,” as long as they eat together a few times a week, their teenage daughter has a substantially lower risk of falling into harmful weight control practices. The same holds true with a family who has unhealthy eating habits; as long as the family communes and eats one or two meals a week together, the daughters risk of holding a distorted body image and engaging in weight loss practices greatly diminished.

Mankind has a natural relation to food. God commanded man to till and tend for the soil. So, by not eating together, by eating while glued to a screen, our minds are not focused on the food in front of us. Typically, we are eating on the go, so all that is required is a quick microwave heating of the food and we’re off! – This disconnects us from the true purpose of the meal. One of our basic needs is to eat. We cannot survive without food. Matthew Kelly states that God speaks to us through our legitimate needs, and since we are called to serve God, we mustcare for our legitimate needs – if we are not caring for ourselves, how can we possibly care for others? If our legitimate needs aren’t met, we are in no position to minister to another person. Man fully alive has all of his or her legitimate needs balanced, and is open to receiving God’s Word in their daily life.

Food is not something that should be overlooked as a quick necessity before moving on to the next task; food is a reminder of our human weakness and provides us an opportunity to create a space for encounter, not only with each other, but with our Heavenly Father.

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