December 28, 2005
Back the Family Dinner
For many families,
the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's are about the only
time they get together for meals. The rest of the year, eating
is largely a matter of self-service. Family members pop things
in the microwave or grab food at restaurants. The repasts, such
as they are, get consumed in the back of a car or in front of
a television set.
If we want to know
why so many children are obese and others are starving themselves,
we should at least consider the collapse of the family dinner
hour. Parents no longer pass on the basic life skill of disciplined
eating, so the kids invent their own diets.
family meal gets a quick reference in a recent Newsweek
cover story, "Fighting Anorexia: No One to Blame." As
the title implies, the article largely clears parents of fault
in the eating disorders of their children -- and puts greater
focus on genes.
is a horrendous condition, in which the afflicted starve themselves,
sometimes to death. Most victims are white suburban teenage girls,
who "diet" their way to emaciation. The girls are wasting
away to nothing and still think they're fat.
anorexics typically come from affluent, high-achieving families,
observers of the disease have long suspected that demanding parents
are somewhat responsible. They also blame a larger culture that
worships hollow-cheeked models and rail-thin actresses. (While
People magazine writes about Mary-Kate Olsen being treated
for anorexia, W, a fashion magazine, puts her on its
do play a role," the Newsweek article says, challenging
the traditional view, "but most often it's a genetic one."
It cites a study showing that anorexics have abnormally high levels
of the hormone serotonin, which can cause anxiety or obsession.
Experts speculate that cultural influences may trigger an eating
disorder, but usually in people who are already hard-wired to
Well, genetics may
very well play a part in anorexia, but consider: The same genes
were floating through the population 100 years ago, but very few
girls in 1905 were starving themselves under their sateen wrappers.
I asked Dr. Craig
Johnson, director of the eating-disorder program at Laureate Psychiatric
Hospital in Tulsa, Okla., how he viewed the debate. He thinks
that genes, as well as culture, are factors in anorexia. He likens
anorexia to alcoholism. Many young people sneak drinks, but only
five in 100 children who experiment with alcohol get hooked.
Similarly, many young
American women are exposed to the same scrawny rock singers, but
only four out of 100 have anorexia or bulimia, another eating
disorder, in which people binge on food, then purge it. (The National
Institute of Mental Health is running a study on the genetics
of anorexia, and families are urged to participate. Visit www.angenetics.org
for more information.)
But the cultural
influences are undeniable. "The prevalence of the eating
disorders," Johnson says, "is directly correlated with
the degree of Westernization of the culture." He notes that
before the Berlin Wall fell, anorexia was far more common in West
Germany than in East Germany. Now the rate of occurrence is about
We may laugh at reruns
of "The Donna Reed Show," a product of the '50s, in
which a family gathers daily to say grace over its bountiful table.
(The table always has proper linens and a stiff flower arrangement.)
But the teenage daughter, though clothes-conscious, has a healthy,
Most families 50
years ago weren't that hoity-toity, but they shared a square meal.
Their dinner was also a fixed feature of the day.
Lots of pressures
have since killed off the family dinner hour. Divorce creates
single parents too frazzled to set the table. People work longer
hours and take on longer commutes. Often no adult is around at
the hour when families used to sit down for dinner.
Communal dining is
dying in Britain, as well. A third of British families surveyed
say they use the dining table only for special occasions, such
as Christmas or birthdays. Only 5 percent sit around the dinner
table every night.
Several factors may
contribute to the explosion in eating disorders, but the decline
in regular dining habits must play some part. Bring back the family
dinner. In a more perfect world, families would organize the dinner
hour first, then plan everything else.
2005 Creators Syndicate