Dinner Doctors may have found a way to simultaneously work on several major health problems facing U.S. children: obesity, too much TV, too little sleep and chaotic mealtimes. Maybe you can guess where this one is going.

A team of researchers in the United States and Canada has developed an approach to help low-income children lose weight by reducing the kids’ television viewing time, increasing their sleep time, and encouraging their families to eat dinner together at consistent times.

This is the first home-based intervention that has attempted to reduce obesity rates by changing household behavior, instead of focusing on diet or exercise, the researchers said. The study appears today (Sept. 9) in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. [10 Ways to Promote Kids’ Healthy Eating Habits]

Health starts at home

Childhood obesity has more than doubled, and tripled among adolescents, over the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Approximately 17 percent of U.S. children are obese. The problem is particularly acute among African Americans, Latinos, and children in low-income families.

While the underlying cause of obesity is obvious — more calories are consumed than expended — gaining excess weight is too easy, and losing weight is clearly difficult, or the obesity epidemic would have been solved by now, said Aaron Carroll, a pediatric obesity expert at Indiana University School of Medicine not associated with the new study.

A holistic lifestyle change might be a better way to approach obesity, Carroll said.

“Rather than drill down to a specific eating or exercise change, creating a healthier household may be a better way not only to improve weight, but overall physical and mental health as well,” Carroll wrote in an editorial accompanying they study in the journal.

Ongoing research has suggested that four household routines are associated with healthy weight for children: getting regular and adequate sleep; eating meals together as a family; limiting television viewing; and having no TV in the room where the child sleeps. A 2010 study published in the journal Pediatrics found that preschool-age children in households with these four routines had a rate of obesity 40 percent lower than that of children whose homes had none of these routines.

Improving habits

Now, a team led by Dr. Elsie Taveras, of Harvard Medical School in Boston, and Jess Haines, of the University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada, has successfully introduced these healthy habits in the homes of low-income families in the Boston area.

The team enrolled 121 families with overweight children, whose homes had TVs in the room where the children slept. Among them, 59 families were assigned to a control group – they received information via the mail over the next six months about healthy household habits. The other 62 families received in-home counseling about these healthy habits.

Children in the intervention group increased their sleep by a half hour per day, reduced their TV viewing by one hour per day, and decreased their body mass index (BMI) by 20 percent. Meanwhile, children in the control group saw a small decrease in sleep and a 20 percent increase in BMI.

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