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Family mealtime important for boys and girls, according to Loughborough study

Family mealtimes are associated with fewer eating problems in girls and less depression in boys, according to a study by Loughborough academics.

The research, the first of its kind in the UK, showed that regular mealtimes with a positive atmosphere are associated with relatively healthy eating attitudes.

Professor Caroline Meyer, Director of the Loughborough University Centre for Research into Eating Disorders, said: “We looked at boys and girls, the number of family mealtimes reportedly eaten together and the importance placed on those mealtimes.

“We found that the more importance families place on those meals and the more positive the mealtime atmosphere, the lower the level of eating problems in girls and the lower the level of depression in boys.”

Professor Meyer said it was important that parents revived the family mealtime which in recent years has suffered potentially due to busy modern lifestyles and distractions like TV, computers and video games.

Dr Emma Haycraft, Lecturer in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences said: “There is other literature out there to suggest that family mealtimes are important but this is the first time it has been found with adolescents in the UK. It replicates American findings.”

The findings are included in a paper called ‘Family mealtimes: Links with eating psychopathology and mental health among adolescent girls and boys’, which will be presented at the British Feeding and Drinking Group (BFDG) Annual Conference, taking place at Loughborough University on April 4-5.

The questionnaire-based study, conducted by researcher Hannah White, was based on a sample of 436 adolescents, aged between 14 and 18, attending educational establishments across the East Midlands in England.

The research showed that 94 per cent of adolescents reported eating one or more family meals a week, while 63 per cent said they had five or more meals as a family each week.

However, only around one third reported eating the equivalent of one meal per day as a family, highlighting that family mealtimes are not commonplace amongst all families of adolescents. Indeed a minority, six per cent, reported never eating a meal together with their family during the previous seven days.

In boys, lower levels of depression symptoms were associated with eating more meals as a family, placing greater priority on family meals, feeling that family mealtimes had a positive atmosphere, and having family mealtimes which were more structured.

For girls, lower levels of depression symptoms were only associated with family mealtimes which had a positive atmosphere. However, eating more family meals together and placing a higher priority on family meals was linked to lower levels of eating disorder psychopathology.

Professor Meyer said she was not surprised by the findings because family mealtimes were a good time for parents and their children to talk together.

She said: “There are several interpretations of these findings.  Those families who are more likely to sit together and have a meal are more likely to communicate with each other. Family mealtimes can provide a good opportunity to discuss any concerns or problems, as well as to share positive experiences.”

Dr Haycraft added: “Family mealtimes are important in terms of modelling. So if a child sees their parents eating a healthy, balanced diet in a relaxed environment, the child is more likely to engage in this behaviour as well.”

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