Do family habits affect childhood obesity?

Helping your child maintain a healthy weight is important as they grow, but one in five UK children is obese. New research from the University of Glasgow has found a relationship between family eating habits and childhood obesity. Here, the research team explains how family habits – and screen time – can affect your child’s weight and health.

By Alison Parkes PhD, Senior Investigator Scientist, University of Glasgow 

Eating and screen time: best kept separate?

Our eating habits have become so much less formal than they used to be, with fewer set mealtimes involving families eating together round a table. Members of families may eat at different times, and there is less distinction between meals and snacking. Food is more likely to be consumed while watching TV or browsing the internet, often away from the dining table; and we’re all familiar with family members eating together, but all busy on mobiles or tablet computers!

Now new research from our team at the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow, suggests that these family eating habits could damage your child’s health. Researchers linked young children’s unhealthy diet and being overweight with having a TV in their bedroom, informal meal settings and less positive social interaction at mealtimes.

Obesity is now a universal issue for the health of all children, but in many countries the problem is most serious among more disadvantaged families – those with lower incomes, living in poorer communities.  In general, parents in these families also tend to have lower educational levels than those in more advantaged families.

Screen out the screens

Our new study wanted to explore these issues and looked at children from 2,900 Scottish families over a four year period - with the children aging from 4 to 8. We found that family eating habits helped explain differences in the Body Mass Index levels (BMIs) of children from more advantaged compared with less disadvantaged families. It also found that young children of mothers who had less education had higher BMIs than those of mothers with more education, and that mothers’ education appeared to matter more in terms of impact on young children’s BMI than family income did.  This might be down to the lifestyle or culture associated with mothers’ educational level, rather than their actual level of education.

This all points towards a need to change our screen-orientated mealtime culture, by helping parents to be aware of the impact modern family eating habits are having.

This is not the first study to find a clear link between watching TV and being overweight or obese. Our team believes there are several reasons why the two might be linked, over and above the common understanding that there’s a relationship between being less active and sleeping less and being overweight.

First, eating while watching TV interferes with our normal regulation of food intake: we do not pay close attention to what we are eating, and take longer to feel full. Consequently it is all too easy to eat too many crisps, sweets and other energy-dense foods when you are in front of a screen. Second, TV and other screen-use at meals may also make family communication more difficult, and this reduces the opportunity to help children develop healthy eating habits. Third, the more children watch TV, the more they are exposed to TV food advertising. 

Food for thought

Looking further into what was happening, the study reported that having a TV in children’s bedrooms was particularly harmful, probably because children were snacking away from parental control.

It is all indeed food for thought. Allowing young children a bedroom TV or eating the main meal in front of the TV are now commonplace so many parents might want to think about whether how, and where, their child eats, is having an effect on their health. Choosing to switch off the TV, move away from the computer, or put down a phone at mealtimes could improve your family’s health. 

  • For the full study, see Parkes, A., Sweeting, H., Young, R., & Wight, D. (2016). Does parenting help to explain socioeconomic inequalities in children's body mass index trajectories? Longitudinal analysis using the Growing Up in Scotland study. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.


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