"Family meals really do improve teenagers' diets and put them on a path to healthy eating in later life – even if home life is dysfunctional," reports the Mail Online.
Researchers in the US used data from a 2011 survey of teenagers and young adults aged 14 to 24. They looked at how often they ate dinner with their family, how much fruit and vegetables they ate, how often they ate junk food or takeaways, and how often they drank sugar-sweetened soft drinks.
Previous research has found that family dinners are linked to a better diet. But researchers also know that well-functioning families are more likely to share family meals, which could explain or influence the link between family dinners and better diet.
So in this study, researchers also tried to assess measures of family functioning (such as communication, emotional connection and problem solving), to see if this had an influence.
The researchers found as expected, that young people tended to eat better diets if they shared more family dinners.
But this was the case for all families that ate together, whether or not they scored as a well-functioning family. The researchers concluded that family dinners were a good way to improve young people's diets.
The researchers who carried out the study came from the University of Guelph in Canada, Amhurst College, Harvard Medical School and Brown University in the US, and Loughborough University in the UK. It was funded by the US National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and published in the peer-reviewed medical journal JAMA Network Open, which is free to read online.
The Mail Online gave a reasonably accurate portrayal of the study, although it overstated some of the results. For example, it reported that boys "were far more likely than girls to eat mainly junk food if they hadn't grown up with family dinners". In fact, boys were likely to eat 0.1 junk food portions less each week if they had more frequent family dinners – or 1 less junk food portion every 10 weeks.
This was a cross-sectional study using questionnaires to analyse the effects of family meals and family functioning on young people's diets. Cross-sectional research can give you a snapshot of what is happening at one point in time, but it can't show that one factor (such as family meals) directly causes another (such as diet). In this study, the role of a potential third factor, family functioning, was examined.
For this study, researchers used data from a 2011 survey of teenagers and young adults (aged 14 to 24), which looked at food intake, family meals and family functioning. The people surveyed were all children of nurses in the US who had taken part in a previous health study.
Food intake was assessed using a food frequency questionnaire. Researchers asked how often young people:
Young people were also asked how often they sat down to eat dinner with their family, from never to 5 times a week or more.
Family functioning was assessed using 9 questions from a standard assessment scale, with scores from 1 to 4 (1 being a high functioning score and 4 being a dysfunctional score). An overall average score below 2.17 was used as a benchmark to indicate healthy functioning.
Researchers assessed the link between family dinner frequency and quality of young people's diets. They then looked to see whether different levels of family functioning changed the effects of frequent family dinners on teenagers' diets, taking into account young people's age, father's educational level and family structure (living with 2 parents or not).
Results were reported separately for girls and boys. For both, more frequent family dinners were linked to better diet. Specifically:
There were no signs that family functioning made much of a difference to the results for boys or girls – results were very similar whether family functioning was included as a variable or not.
The researchers said they had found that "frequent family dinners are significantly associated with improved dietary intakes among youths".
They say that the results show "not only do families with lower levels of family functioning participate in frequent family meals, but that family dinners are associated with improved dietary intake, regardless of level of family functioning".
The study adds to evidence that eating family meals may be a way to help improve diet quality, for teenagers and young people as well as for younger children and adults. This could be because other research suggests that meals prepared and cooked at home are likely to be nutritionally better quality than those from takeaways or fast food restaurants.
The finding that eating together is good for the diet even if the family has other problems is interesting. It suggests that even if teenagers are not communicating well with parents, the benefits of family meals on their diet can still be seen. However, there are some limitations to the study worth noting.
The study was carried out using data from one questionnaire, self-reported by the young people themselves. That means there is a possibility of inaccurate answers, and we can't see how diet, family meal frequency and family functioning changed over time. That makes it harder to know if one factor causes or influences another.
The group studied were 90% white, which may limit the generalisability of the findings.
Perhaps more importantly, they were all children of registered nurses, which means they may be more likely to have grown up in households where healthy diets are thought important.
If the study results are true, however, they suggest that families with teenagers should be encouraged to eat evening meals together, to help them maintain a good-quality diet and learn good habits for the future.