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Posted February 5, 2010

Household routines may help prevent obesity in preschoolers

CORE researcher collaborates on national study on links between habits at home and children’s obesity rates

According to Temple’s Robert Whitaker, a professor of pediatrics and public health at the Center for Obesity Research and Education, establishing certain routines at home could help curb the alarming rates of obesity among preschoolers.

Published today in the journal Pediatrics, Whitaker co-authored a study that found that preschool-aged children who were exposed to three household routines — regularly eating the evening meal as a family, obtaining adequate nighttime sleep, and limiting time in front of the television — were 40 percent less likely to be obese than children who were not exposed to any of these routines.

Whitaker said that no prior research has looked at the association between obesity in young children and the combination of these three routines. He said that parents should consider adopting one or more of these routines because they may help children maintain a healthy weight while providing other benefits to children’s development.

Whitaker and fellow author Sarah E. Anderson of The Ohio State University looked at the height and weight of a nationwide sample of roughly 8,550 four- year-olds born in the US in 2001. They compared obesity rates in children with and without three routines: regularly eating dinner as a family (more than five nights per week), getting enough sleep on weeknights (10.5 hours or more per night), and limiting access to television, videos and DVDs (at most two hours per weekday).

The prevalence of obesity among children with all three routines was 14.3 percent, versus 24.5 percent among children with none of the routines. Each of the routines alone was associated with a similar decrease in the risk of obesity, and having more of the routines was also associated with a greater reduction in risk.

Whitaker said that the association between these routines and a lower risk of obesity was seen for children living in lower income households as well as for children with an obese mother.

“When these routines were present, we noted a lower risk for obesity even in groups of children usually at higher risk for obesity. We should be trying to help parents figure out how to adopt and sustain these routines in their households,” he said.

Last year, Whitaker and Anderson published a study that found that nearly one in five four-year- olds in the US, about a half a million children, are considered obese. Whitaker said this alarming statistic shows that children are becoming obese even before they enter elementary school, suggesting the need to start instituting healthy behaviors early in life and in the home.

"Talking with parents about the potential importance of establishing these routines very early in life may be a good opportunity to begin obesity prevention early,” he said. “At any age, once a child becomes obese, it is a very challenging issue for families to address.”

This study was funded by the Food Assistance and Nutrition Research Program of the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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