A new study finds three household routines lower the risk of obesity in children: having family dinners, getting enough sleep and limiting weekday TV time.
Four-year-olds in homes that followed these practices had a nearly 40 percent lower prevalence of obesity than children who did none of these things.
Of course childhood obesity — a soaring phenomenon in America — ultimately is fueled by poor diet and lack of exercise. But increasingly scientists have been able to tie other lifestyle factors to weight gain.
Obesity raises the risk of diabetes, heart disease and even cancer. The prevalence of obesity among children aged 6 to 11 years increased from 6.5 percent in 1980 to 19.6 percent in 2008, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Each routine on its own was associated with lower obesity, and more routines translated to lower obesity prevalence. The links held up even when other obesity risks were factored in.
"The routines were protective even among groups that typically have a high risk for obesity," said Sarah Anderson, assistant professor of epidemiology at Ohio State University and lead author of the study. "This is important because it suggests that there's a potential for these routines to be useful targets for obesity prevention in all children."
Anderson and Robert Whitaker, professor of public health and pediatrics at Temple University, will detail their findings in the March issue of the journal Pediatrics.
Previous studies have conclusively linked poor diet to obesity. Increased consumption of fast food, sugary cereals, soda and other highly processed foods, at the expense of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats is considered a key cause of weight gain and poor overall health.
The new research was based on data collected in 2005 on 8,550 4-year-olds around the United States. Benchmarks for healthier children were set at: eating the evening meal as a family more than five times per week; obtaining at least 10.5 hours of sleep per night; and watching less than two hours per day of TV on weekdays.
Based on body mass index (BMI), 14.3 percent of the children whose households practiced all three routines were obese. In contrast, 24.5 percent living in households without any of the routines were obese. None of the three routines seemed to offer more health benefits than the others.
"Each one appears to be associated with a lower risk of obesity, and having more of these routines appears to lower the risk further," Anderson said.
The research was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.
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