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Am Fam Physician. 2005;71(6):1192

Family is a key component in the healthy development of adolescents. For example, frequent family meals have been shown to improve nutritional intake and decrease the risk of unhealthy weight control practices, substance abuse, sexual intercourse, and suicidal involvement in adolescents. In past studies, family mealtime may have served as a proxy for family connectedness. Expanding on these studies, Eisenberg and associates conducted a study to determine the relationship between frequency of family meals and indicators of adolescent health by excluding family connectedness variables.

The study was part of Project EAT (Eating Among Teens), which used a questionnaire to explore adolescent eating patterns and weight concerns. Questionnaires were given to students at 31 public middle and senior high schools during one or two class periods. The schools were located in a major metropolitan area that included diverse ethnic and socioeconomic populations from urban and suburban communities. The questionnaire asked how often the students ate meals with most or all of their family present. Other questions focused on academic performance, substance abuse, self-esteem issues, depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation and attempts, and sociodemographic variables. Family connectedness was established through a four-item scale.

More than 4,600 adolescents, 11 to 18 years of age, took part in the study, representing an 81.5 percent participation rate. Of these, 26.8 percent reported eating seven or more family meals within the previous week, while 33.1 percent reported eating two or fewer family meals. Adolescents of both sexes who reported a higher frequency of family meals had significantly lower odds of having a low grade point average; cigarette, alcohol, and substance abuse problems; high depressive symptoms; and suicidal ideation. Females with a higher frequency of family meals had lower odds of having poor self-esteem and suicidal ideation. The results were the same after controlling for family connectedness.

The authors conclude that eating family meals may improve the health and psychosocial well-being of adolescents, regardless of family connectedness. The authors recommend that the public be educated on the positive effects family mealtime can have on adolescent development.

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