December 28, 2005
Bring Back the Family Dinner
By Froma Harrop

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.

The disappearing 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.

Anorexia nervosa 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.

Because 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 cover.)

"Parents 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 develop it.

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 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 even.

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, well-fed look.

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.

Copyright 2005 Creators Syndicate

Froma Harrop

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