Traditional Family Routines Reduce Childhood Obesity?

So, as Michelle Obama yesterday announced her childhood obesity initiative, another piece of news on childhood obesity crowded the news wires.

This was a study by Sarah Anderson (Ohio State) and Robert Whitaker (Temple) published as an early release in Pediatrics.

The researchers performed a cross-sectional analysis of a nationally representative sample of 8550 four-year-old US children who were assessed in 2005 in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study.

The study focussed on the relationship between obesity and three household routines: regularly eating the evening meal as a family (>5 nights per week); obtaining adequate nighttime sleep on weekdays (10.5 hours per night); and having limited screen-viewing (television, video, digital video disk) time on weekdays (2 hours/day).

Analyses were adjusted for the child’s race/ethnicity, maternal obesity, maternal education, household income, and living in a single-parent household.

While the prevalence of obesity was 14.3% among children exposed to all 3 routines (14.5% of the sample), it was 24.5% among those exposed to none of the routines (12.4%).

The odds of obesity associated with exposure to all 3, any 2, or only 1 routine (compared with none) were 0.63, 0.64, and 0.84, respectively.

So if you do have kids ask yourself:

1) Do we regularly sit down for supper as a family?
2) Do my kids regularly get at least 10.5 hrs of sleep?
3) Do my kids have less than 2 hrs of screen time on weekdays?

A “no” to all of the above, probably puts your kids in the high-risk category, a “yes” to all of the above, and your kids are probably doing fine.

Now comes the tough part, i.e. wether or not, if you are not doing all of the above, simply doing these three things will actually change your kids risk for obesity. Or in other words, if you did nothing else, except sit down for dinner, have the kids in bed by 8.30, and limit their screen time, would your kids actually have healthy weights?

I am guessing that it will take far more than that. In fact I would not at all be surprised if the families that do any of the above were probably quite different from the families that don’t. I would indeed expect that these families are different in so many ways that really, these three factors are probably just “markers” rather than the actual explanation for the lower obesity risk.

Indeed, if you did have the time and parenting skills to ensure that your whole family sits down for supper, your kids don’t watch too much TV, and are off to bed at bedtime, then you are probably also doing a lot of other things right.

On the other hand, if your family meals are chaotic, you have no control over your kids’ screen time, and they are still running around at midnight, there are probably other issues that need to be addressed.

So while the findings are interesting (and by no means surprising), I am not exactly sure how they will help us address the childhood epidemic.

Perhaps a well-designed intervention study will show wether or not simply adopting these three “routines” will actually make a difference.

I certainly appreciate any comments or opinions on whether or not any of my readers think this will work.

Hamburg, Germany