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Three household habits may help trim childhood obesity

Consumer Reports News: February 18, 2010 11:39 AM

With last week's launch of the Let’s Move campaign, First Lady Michelle Obama issued a call to community leaders, teachers, health professionals, and families to tackle childhood obesity. With 1 in 3 kids now overweight or obese, this is a serious national health issue with no easy solution. However, small steps—such as cutting down on sodas, chips, and other calorie-dense foods—can make a real difference for individual kids. So, too, might the simple act of gathering the family for the evening meal.

A new study has found that a trio of basic household routines—having dinner as a family, limiting TV time, and making sure kids get enough sleep—may substantially lower the risk of obesity for young children.

The study included 8,550 4-year-olds who were part of a broader study on child health and development. The children were weighed and measured, and a parent (usually their mother) was asked questions about their health and daily habits.

The researchers found that kids were much less likely to be obese if they watched less than two hours of TV on weekdays, slept at least 10.5 hours a night, and ate family meals more than five times a week. In fact, if they followed all three routines, they were 40 percent less likely to be obese than if they followed none.

This isn't the first study to find that these routines may lower a child's risk of obesity, but it is the first to look at all three together.

After taking into account other things that could have affected the children's chances of being obese (such as their ethnic background and family income), the researchers estimated that the risk of obesity dropped by around 17 percent with each additional routine followed. Notably, these routines seemed to protect against obesity even among children who had a higher risk of weight problems (for example, if their mother was obese).

This was a well-designed study with intriguing results. But this type of study can't show cause and effect, so it can't prove that the children were less likely to be obese because of these habits. Also, the researchers didn't ask about what the children usually ate. So it's possible that parents who embraced these routines were more likely to give their children healthier meals and snacks, and this was what decreased the risk of obesity. Future studies will need to address this issue and also whether adopting these routines might help children lose weight if they are already obese.

What you need to know. If you're the parent of a young child, this study suggests that following these routines may lower your child's risk of becoming obese. Timely food for thought now that the First Lady is calling us all to the table to help children achieve a healthy weight.

—Sophie Ramsey, patient editor, BMJ Group has partnered with The BMJ Group to monitor the latest medical research and assess the evidence to help you decide which news you should use.

Find out who's more at risk for obesity and why some people gain weight more easily than others. And if you're trying to lose weight, take a look at which strategy works best (subscribers only).

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