A recent magazine ad stopped me in my tracks. This ad didn't have over-sexualized images of women, or any anorexic-looking models. This ad--for Stouffer's frozen meals--had an average teenage girl just sort of sitting there. It was the copy that got me thinking. Some pictures of the ad: The photos aren't the best quality, so the top image says "Can you give your daughter a better body image by setting the table?" The bottom image says "Studies show that teen girls who have family dinner 5 times a week are 33% less likely to develop eating disorders. "
Ohhhhh...so that's why I have an eating disorder! My mom never served Stouffer's!
I got thinking about the ad a little more, and everything that it implied. My first step was to look up the study itself, which was published in January 2008 in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine under the title "Family Meals and Disordered Eating in Adolescents." The study, led by Dianne Neumark-Sztainer at the University of Minnesota, found that regular family meals (5 or more per week) were associated with a one-third reduction in extreme disordered eating behaviors five years later, even when sociodemographic characteristics, body mass index, family connectedness, parental encouragement to diet, and extreme weight control behaviors (at the time of the first survey) were accounted for. Neumark-Sztainer divided disordered eating behavior into two groups--extreme and less extreme--and defined them as follows
Disordered eating behaviors assessed included unhealthy weight control behaviors (extreme and less extreme), binge eating with loss of control, and chronic dieting. Unhealthy weight control behaviors during the past year were assessed with the question "Have you done any of the following things in order to lose weight or keep from gaining weight during the past year?" (yes/no for each method). Responses classified as extreme weight control behaviors included (1) took diet pills, (2) made myself vomit, (3) used laxatives, and (4) used diuretics. Responses classified as unhealthy (less extreme) weight control behaviors included (1) fasted, (2) ate very little food, (3) used food substitute (powder/special drink), (4) skipped meals, and (5) smoked more cigarettes.
Several questions I had that weren't addressed in the paper: although the study factored in disordered eating behaviors at the time of the first survey, I didn't see any relationship mentioned between disordered eating behaviors at the second survey and rates of family meals. My thought is this: the period of adolescence which the study was examining is marked by an increase in disordered eating behaviors. Which is why they chose to study teens of this age in the first place. But if teens developed disordered eating between the first and the second survey, could that have resulted in a decrease in family meals at time two (because the teen is avoiding eating)? Avoidance of meals is so common in people with both disordered eating and eating disorders that I have to wonder if the connection could run both ways. Also, mealtimes may be more chaotic in families with a genetic predisposition to eating disorders and/or disordered eating (although I'm not sure that anyone has measured that).
The interesting differences (however quibbling they might seem to be) between the ad copy were that a) the study never measured body image at all and b) the study assessed disordered eating behaviors, not clinical eating disorders. The first difference just seems like sloppy research to me: no one bothered to read the full study completely. The second difference I find rather telling, because of how we tend to conflate disordered eating and eating disorders. There is probably some overlap, I'm sure, and I'm not saying that chronic dieting isn't problematic. It is. But it's different than an eating disorder. Just like dangerous binge drinking is different than alcoholism (though some binge drinkers may abuse alcohol), and measuring sad/bad moods is different than depression (most people who are depressed are in a bad mood, but if a bad mood meant depression, then humanity would be well and truly f*cked).
I'm going to be the last person to say that family meals aren't good and important- I'm guessing they were a factor as to why I didn't develop a full-blown eating disorder until I went to college. And family meals--a return to the more social aspects of sitting down with friends and family and just enjoying food--have been a major part of my healing. Disordered eating in adolescents is absurdly common, and any effort that helps prevent that is, in my mind, fantastic.
At the same time, this study isn't a "Get Out of Jail Free" card for people who do eat family meals. I know lots of people with EDs who did eat family meals, and they got eating disorders all the same. Nor is it a reason to blame yourself if you didn't eat regular meals (or didn't eat Stouffer's!) with your children and then they developed an eating disorder.
This post isn't ultimately intended to be a critique of the Neumark-Sztainer study, but rather a breakdown of what the ad actually said and what the study actually found. Still, the fact that a frozen dinner ad used this study in their ad copy rather intrigued me--I've never seen an our-product-prevents-eating-disorders ad before!