MONDAY, Feb. 8 (HealthDay News) -- Something as simple as sitting down to dinner together as a family can go a long way in helping a child fend off obesity.
That's just one of the findings from new research that suggests that family behaviors can have a significant impact on the weight of preschool children. Other behaviors that may help youngsters stay slim include getting adequate sleep and limiting time in front of the TV.
"Four-year-olds who regularly ate dinner with the family, got enough sleep and watched less than two hours of TV a day were 40 percent less likely to be obese," said the study's lead author, Sarah Anderson, an assistant professor of epidemiology in the College of Public Health at Ohio State University in Columbus.
"One of the things that's potentially useful about recommending these routines, if they're suggested as part of obesity-prevention counseling, is that they may have other benefits, too. And, for pediatricians and other clinicians, we don't have easy, effective treatments for obesity in children, so it's very important to try to prevent obesity," said Anderson.
Results of the study are scheduled to be published in the March issue of Pediatrics.
The study included a nationally representative sample of 8,550 four-year-old children. One parent of each child answered researchers' questions about the family's routines and behaviors.
From this group of children, 18 percent were considered obese, which means their body mass index (a measurement that includes weight and height) is greater than the 95th percentile when compared to others of their age and gender.
Just 14.5 percent of the children were exposed to all three of the study behaviors on a regular basis: Eating the evening meal as a family five or more nights a week, getting more than 10.5 hours of sleep per night, and watching less than two hours of TV, video or DVDs a day.
The researchers found that in children routinely exposed to all three of these behaviors, the obesity rate was 14.3 percent. In children who weren't exposed to any of these behaviors, the obesity rate was 24.5 percent.
Anderson said that each behavior was associated with a 17 percent reduction in the risk in obesity.
These findings held true even when the researchers controlled for factors that may affect a child's risk of obesity, including maternal obesity, race, gender, socioeconomic status and living in a single-parent household.
Anderson pointed out that this study could only find an association between these behaviors and a child's risk of obesity. The study was not designed to assess cause and effect.
"We don't know if it's the routines per se, or if it's the parenting associated with these routines or something else correlated with these routines, but we do know these routines are associated with a lower incidence of obesity," said Anderson.
"These are relatively simple things that you can do in your home that change the health environment of your child. Not only will it help your child with obesity risk, but plenty of other studies have shown that it will also help with behavior and cognitive development. These are great changes to make if they're not already in place," said Dr. Jennifer Helmcamp, a pediatrician and director of the Jump Start Pediatric Weight Management Clinic at Scott & White Healthcare in Round Rock, Texas.
If it seems impossible to institute all three of these behaviors, Anderson said that any one of them alone can have an effect. "Each of these routines was related to a lower risk of obesity, so you can choose to try the one that you think you'll have the most success with. If you're already doing one, consider doing another," she suggested.
Helmcamp said it can be hard to institute some of these behaviors. But she suggested that parents "make these behaviors a priority. Sit down and figure out how you can make it happen. Maybe your child doesn't need to be involved in four or five different activities."
She said if it's tough to eat together five times a week, shoot for at least three nights a week. And, she also recommended removing TVs from children's bedrooms, which can help with limiting screen time and with getting enough sleep.
A second study in the March issue of Pediatrics found that preschoolers aren't the only age group that can be influenced with positive behaviors. This study, which included 81 obese teenaged girls, found that when girls read a book that featured an overweight girl who learns about nutrition, physical activity and improving her self-esteem, readers reduced their body mass index percentile more than girls who didn't read the book.
Learn more about overweight and obesity in children from the Nemours Foundation's KidsHealth Web site.