The study carried out by a team from University College London (UCL), the research is the first in the UK to look at the patterns of body mass index (BMI) weight in the first 10 years of a child’s life, and which lifestyle factors appear to affect and predict weight gain.
To carry out their research the team used data from Millennium Cohort Study, a study of children born into 19,244 families in the UK between September 2000 and January 2002.
Data on the children’s weight and height was collected at ages 3, 5, 7 and 11.
Their analysis showed that children skipping breakfast and not having a regular bedtime or a sufficient amount of sleep were important factors in predicting whether a child would become overweight or obese, as was whether the mothers smoked during pregnancy.
As all three are factors that can be modified, the findings highlight the potential to reduce the current growth in levels of childhood overweight and obesity by taking action to change these lifestyle habits.
The team also looked at which other factors could predict weight gain, finding perhaps surprisingly that breastfeeding and introducing solid food at an early age were not associated with children’s weight, and sugary drink consumption, fruit intake, TV viewing and sports participation were also not strong predictors.
Although the study used observational information, making the researchers unable to draw any firm cause-and-effect conclusions, the large-scale study used data from thousands of children taken from over a ten-year period, giving the team the opportunity to look at the many different factors that could influence a child’s weight.
Explaining the findings, lead researcher Professor Yvonne Kelly from UCL Epidemiology and Public Health commented saying, “It is well known that children of overweight or obese mothers are more likely to be overweight themselves, probably reflecting the ‘obesogenic’ environment and perhaps a genetic predisposition to gain weight,”
“This study shows that disrupted routines, exemplified by irregular sleeping patterns and skipping breakfast, could influence weight gain through increased appetite and the consumption of energy-dense foods.”
Children who are overweight or obese have been found to have poorer mental health including lower self-esteem and greater levels of unhappiness, and are more likely as well to show risky health behaviors such as cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption. These effects can also last beyond childhood and into adolescence and adulthood.