Parents, please take note. Among the lifestyle habits that influence the risk of overweight and obesity in children, watching television is the worst, suggests new research. "Identifying habits linked to overweight and obesity in the early stages of life can help us to define preventive strategies against other conditions, such as cardiovascular and metabolic diseases during adulthood," said the lead author of the study Rowaedh Bawaked, researcher at the Hospital del Mar Medical Research Institute in Spain.
The researchers analysed five lifestyle habits: physical activity, sleep time, television time, plant-based food consumption and ultra-processed food consumption. The study, published in the journal Pediatric Obesity, was based on data from 1,480 children. Parents were asked to complete various questionnaires on the children's lifestyle habits at four years of age.
To calculate the health impact of these habits, the researchers measured the children's body mass index (BMI), waist circumference and blood pressure at four and seven years of age. Children who were less active and spent more time in front of the television at four years of age were at greater risk of being affected by overweight, obesity and metabolic syndrome at seven years of age, showed the findings.
The researchers also measured the time spent by the children on other sedentary activities, such as reading, drawing and doing puzzles. However, these activities did not appear to be associated with overweight or obesity. "When children watch television, they see a huge number of advertisements for unhealthy food," said co-leader of the study Dora Romaguera from Barcelona Institute for Global Health in Spain.
"This may encourage them to consume these products," Romaguera said. Ultra-processed foods, such as pastries, sweet beverages and refined-grain products, are high in sugar, salt and saturated fat and low in nutritional value. The study showed that high intake of these products at four years of age was associated with a higher BMI at seven years of age.
Moreover, television viewing "discourages physical activity and interrupts sleep time", explained Silvia Fernandez, a post-doctoral researcher at Barcelona Institute for Global Health. As the researchers noted, adequate sleep time in early childhood is essential for weight control later in childhood.
The study concluded that adult health depends on the establishment of healthy lifestyle habits during childhood: limited television time, extracurricular physical activity, getting enough hours of sleep, eating lots of vegetables and avoiding ultra-processed foods.