Eating disorders among youth are on the rise. A new report by the American Academy of Pediatrics has some scary statistics.

  • From 1999 to 2006, the hospitalization rate for children under 12 with eating disorders went up 119 percent
  • Boys now make up 10 percent of all cases of eating disorders among adolescents
  • 0.5 percent of adolescent girls in America have anorexia
  • 1 to 2 percent of adolescents meet the criteria for having bulimia nervosa 
I told you the statistics were scary. Fortunately, there is something you can do to help lessen the chance of your children — or at least your girls — developing an eating disorder. Eat together as a family.

A study published in Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine found that “teenage girls who ate five or more family meals per week were less likely to resort to extreme dieting measures like using diet pills or laxatives, binge eating, and vomiting to control their weight” (source WebMD).

Eating together as a family had this positive impact “regardless of the girls’ socioeconomic status, body mass index, or feelings of family connectedness.”

The same impact was not found among the boys in the study, and researchers are unsure why.

My oldest son started junior high this year. I have always believed in the importance of the family meal. This year's family meals are confirmation. The information that I get from him about what is going on in his life, in his mind, in his school, and with his classmates does not come out at any other time.

Eating dinner together is a time when my husband and I can reassure both our boys that the things they are experiencing are normal (and know that we need to intervene when their experiences go beyond normal). We get to assure them that they are great kids.

As Laurie David put it in her book “The Family Dinner” (see my review), family dinners are a powerful tool.

There is something so powerful about the accountability of committing to come to the table most nights that works. My family members know that every day, they are going to have to reconnect with me. Family dinner acts as a motivator, a deterrent, and a safety net. Because we interact with one another every night, no one can get too upset, depressed, or confused without someone in the family noticing. And that gives us all the chance to help and be helped when we need it.

Family dinners won’t assure your children don’t develop eating disorders, but they can help deter them. And, if one of your children does develop an eating disorder (or other serious problem), the family dinner table might just be the place where the problem gets noticed and help begins.  

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

One thing you can do about adolescent eating disorders
It’s not foolproof, but eating together as a family is one way to combat eating disorders