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Meal time promotes young girls' health

EATING DISORDER: See Page 2E Gathering the family around the dinner table for supper helps teen girls avoid eating disorders, according to research from the University of Minnesota. Dani Rowekamp, medical health careers teacher at Red River High ...


Gathering the family around the dinner table for supper helps teen girls avoid eating disorders, according to research from the University of Minnesota.

Dani Rowekamp, medical health careers teacher at Red River High School in Grand Forks, is not surprised by the results of the study.

"Sitting down to a meal is the perfect opportunity to have conversations between children and parents, where kids let you into their lives to talk with them," Rowekamp said.

Rowekamp, a registered nurse, isn't the only health professional glad to see the outcome of this research.


"Family meals help no matter what the problem is," said Jean Gullicks, certified family nurse practitioner with Valley Community Health Centers in the North Dakota towns of Northwood and Larimore.


The U of M study found that teen girls who ate five or more meals a week with their families were nearly one-third less likely to develop extreme weight control behaviors, such as self-induced vomiting and abuse of laxatives, diet pills or diuretics, than girls who ate less often with their families.

About 2,500 Minnesota teenagers filled out a survey in 1999 and were followed up with another survey in 2004. Researchers wanted to know if the number of family meals reported in the first survey had an affect five years later on the likelihood of an eating disorder.

Girls benefited from family meals according to the research, but boys did not show improvement.

Lead researcher Dianne Neumark-Stainer and other researchers from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health have called for a promotion of family meals and suggest further research specifically with boys.

Detecting eating disorders

Eating disorders, classified as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or binge-eating disorder are mental health issues primarily affecting adolescent girls.


Accurate statistics are hard to find because of the struggle to clearly label someone into one of the categories and resistance of many people to acknowledge symptoms with their health care providers.

People who have eating disorders have certain characteristics, not just physically, but also emotionally. They are people who want to be in control and are perfectionists, Rowekamp said. For teens who may feel like they have no control over their lives, their eating habits are one thing they can control.

"Eating disorders stem from biological, psychological and social factors," said Joanna Marino a UND doctoral student who also worked with Valley Community Health Centers.

Genetics are viewed as playing a role into having a greater predisposition for eating disorders, said Marino. So, parents who had their own teenage struggles with eating disorders, may want to be aware of similar characteristics demonstrated in their children."Other factors include low self-esteem, previous abuse, and some adolescents don't want to except growth - a fear of maturation," Gullicks said.

Social influences from classmates to the media are also affecting body image in an image-obsessed society, said Gullicks and Marino.

Trend change

While eating disorders stereotypically have been pegged as an adolescent female disorder, health professionals and research are pointing to broader demographics.

In the late 1990s Gullicks says she saw mainly teen girls for eating disorders, but now she is seeing an increase of women in their 30s, as well as an increase in boys.


"There's a lot of body image concerns, even third and fourth graders don't want to get on the scale," Gullicks said. This is a learned behavior, something a child is picking up from mom or dad at home, Marino notes.

Diagnosing or counseling women in their 30s who have eating disorders is difficult, said Gullicks, because they're good at hiding eating disorder symptoms.

Another trend is the development of eating disorders after bariatric surgery because there's such an emphasis on food portion and losing weight, Marino said.

Girls still make up the largest portion of people with anorexia nervosa, but numbers are growing for boys who have bulimia nervosa and especially binge-eating disorders.

Boys are affected in the same way girls are, concerned over body image, such as muscle mass.

One reason boys may develop an eating disorder is because of embarrassment of gynecomastia, the swelling of breast tissue in men or boys.

The condition is caused by hormone changes during puberty, which affects over half of teenage boys, especially adolescents who are tall or overweight, according to www.mayoclinic.com .

Getting help

The biggest part of overcoming eating disorders is awareness, Rowekamp said.

"If friends suspect someone may be struggling with an eating disorder, they should be supportive, but gently express their concern," Rowekamp said. "If an adult is not involved, try to get one involved, either a parent, counselor or someone that can take the pressure off the friend."

Resources within schools are the school nurse and counselors, who know programs in the community.

People may also be referred to a nutritionist or family therapy may be recommended. Many people who deal with eating disorders are also treated for another illness, such as depression or anxiety, Marino said.

"Kids can't truly see what they're doing to their bodies," Rowekamp said.

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