Study: Watching television worst habit for kids when it comes to childhood obesity

BARCELONA — Parents have long feared allowing their children to stay in front of the TV for too long, and now a new study seems to be validating some of those concerns. Researchers at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) examined how closely several common lifestyle habits were associated with childhood weight gains and obesity. They found that of all the common habits children tend to have, watching television had the strongest association with adolescent obesity.

The findings were based on data from 1,480 children living in three Spanish provinces: Sabadell, Gipuzkoa, and Valencia. All of the subjects were originally enrolled in the INMA Environment and Childhood Project, a research network in Spain focused on the role of pollutants during pregnancy and their effects on children.

The researchers compared five common childhood lifestyle habits: physical activity, sleep time, television time, consumption of plant-based foods, and consumption of ultra-processed foods.

Initially, the children’s parents completed a series of questionnaires on their kids’ lifestyle habits at four years old. Then, the researchers determined the impact of those habits on the children’s health by measuring their body mass index (BMI), waist circumference, and blood pressure at four years old, then again at seven years old.

“Most research to date has focused on the impact of individual lifestyle behaviors rather than
cumulative effects,” says study co-leader Martine Vrijheid, a researcher with the ISGlobal Programme on Childhood and Environment, in a media release. “However, it is well known that unhealthy behaviors tend to overlap and interrelate. Our aim in this study was to examine the whole set of lifestyle behaviors with a view to facilitating the development of interventions capable of targeting the determinants of obesity from a broader perspective.”

According to the findings, children who were less active and spent more time watching television at age four had a greater risk of becoming overweight and suffering from obesity and metabolic syndrome by age seven. Meanwhile, other sedentary activities, such as reading, drawing, and completing puzzles, were not found to have a strong association with becoming overweight or obese.

The researchers went on to explain that when children watch television, they are often exposed to advertisements promoting ultra-processed foods such as sweet beverages, candy, and other items high in salt, sugar, and saturated fat. Such ads promote, and in many instances, cause unhealthy changes in kids’ diet. On that note, this study also found that consumption of these types of foods at age four usually leads to a higher BMI by age seven.

The study’s authors also pointed out that watching TV discourages exercise and usually disrupts sleep time, two activities essential to preventing weight gain.

Overall, the study concludes that healthy lifestyle habits during childhood, including limited television time, extracurricular physical activity, eating enough vegetables, avoiding ultra-processed foods, and getting enough sleep, are the best methods of attaining strong health in adulthood.

The study is published in the journal Pediatric Obesity.