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TV watching key factor in childhood obesity

Researchers find that TV watching is the lifestyle habit most strongly associated with obesity in children

Ingrid Torjesen

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Television watching is the lifestyle habit most strongly associated with overweight and obesity in children, a Spanish study* analysing the impact of various lifestyle behaviours has found.

The study, published in the journal Pediatric Obesity, was based on data from 1,480 enrolled in the birth cohort of the INMA Environment and Childhood Project, a Spanish research network that studies the role of pollutants during pregnancy and their effects on children.

The researchers analysed five lifestyle habits: physical activity, sleep time, television time, plant-based food consumption and ultra-processed food consumption. 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.

The findings showed that 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. 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-lead of the study Dora Romaguera, from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal). "This may encourage them to consume these products."  

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, and 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.

Sílvia Fernández, a post-doctoral researcher at ISGlobal also pointed out that television viewing "discourages physical activity and interrupts sleep time".

"Previous studies have shown that 45% of children are not sleeping the recommended number of hours per night," explained Fernández. "This is worrying because shorter sleep time tends to be associated with obesity."

The researchers 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.

*Bawaked RA, Fernández‐Barrés S, Navarrete‐Muñoz EV, et al. Impact of lifestyle behaviors in early childhood on obesity and cardiometabolic risk in children: Results from the Spanish INMA birth cohort study. Pediatric Obesity. Published 2 December 2019. DOI: 10.1111/ijpo.12590

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