Although genetics likely play a role in whether or not someone becomes overweight or obese, a family's lifestyle also has a major impact on the chances of a teenager developing a weight problem, a new study shows.
Adolescents tended to be heavier in families that frequently missed meals or spent several hours a day in front of the TV or playing video games, researchers report in the American Journal of Sociology.
"My study finds that weight runs in families, but it's not just because of genetics,” says study author Dr. Molly Martin, at Pennsylvania State University in University Park.
“What we do together, how we spend our time together, what we eat and how we organize ourselves as family matters," she says.
Currently, about 17 percent of American children and teens are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
For the new study, Dr. Martin included data from more than 2,500 pairs of twins, siblings, or half-siblings.
She examined numerous factors that could contribute to a teen's weight status, such as parental obesity, socioeconomic status, parental education levels, birth weight, and activity levels.
Two non-genetic factors that emerged were whether or not families missed meals, and the amount of time they spent watching TV or playing video games.
"Not skipping meals seems to be the biggest factor that can help with regard to the weight of kids," says Dr. Martin.
There are multiple reasons that children miss or skip meals, she says. One is cost; the family may simply not have the resources for three square meals a day.
Another is hectic family lifestyle. The family could be missing a meal because they just don't have the time. Or, for some teens, they may be deliberately skipping meals in a misguided attempt to lose weight.
Whatever the reason, Dr. Martin notes that when you miss a meal, you will likely end up hungrier later which may result in overeating.
"I think the importance of family meals is something that should be underscored," adds Dr. Andrea Vazzana, at the New York University Child Study Center.
"Kids that sit down with their family tend to have a more normal weight,” says Dr. Vazzana. “Parents can provide structure for the meal, and the meal tends to be more well-balanced. Parents can also set limits around food."
Dr. Vazzana adds that when parents eat with their kids they can educate them that it is not a good idea to have two helpings of dessert first and then forgo the vegetables.
The second factor that Dr. Martin found to be a predictor of excess teen weight was how much time the family spent in front of the TV or playing video games. Those who spent a few hours daily on these activities tended to be heavier.
"Families develop patterns together," says Dr. Martin, but those patterns do not have to be bad ones. "Try to be active together. Go for a walk after dinner, play with the dog, play Frisbee. Spend quality time together that's also active time."
Dr. Vazzana says it is not just the displacement of activity that contributes to excess weight. People tend to eat while they are watching TV and are exposed to food ads or food focused shows.
"Sometimes it's really difficult to be healthy, and we may start adopting behaviors that really don't work well,” explains Dr. Martin. “But there are some things we can do consciously and even small changes can make a long-term difference in weight.”
Always consult your physician for more information.
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Eating healthy is an important part of a healthy lifestyle and is something that should be taught to children at a young age. It is important to discuss your child's diet with your child's physician prior to making any dietary changes or placing your child on a diet.
Eat three meals a day, with healthy snacks.
Increase fiber in the diet and decrease the use of salt.
Drink water. Try to avoid drinks and juices that are high in sugar.
Children under the age of two need fats in their diet to help with the growth of their nervous system. Do not place these children on a low fat diet without talking with your child's physician.
Eat balanced meals.
When cooking for your child, try to bake or broil instead of frying.
Decrease your child's sugar intake.
Eat fruit or vegetables for a snack.
For children over age five, use low-fat dairy products.
Decrease the use of butter and heavy gravies.
Eat more lean chicken, fish, and beans for protein.
Try to control when and where food is eaten by your children by providing regular daily meal times with social interaction and demonstration of healthy eating behaviors.
Involve children in the selection and preparation of foods and teach them to make healthy choices by providing opportunities to select foods based on their nutritional value.
For children in general, reported dietary intakes of the following are low enough to be of concern by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA): vitamin E, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and fiber. Select foods with these nutrients when possible.
Most Americans need to reduce the amount of calories they consume. When it comes to weight control, calories do count. Controlling portion sizes and eating non-processed foods helps limit calorie intake and increase nutrients.
Parents are encouraged to provide recommended serving sizes for children.
Parents are encouraged to limit children’s video, television watching, and computer use to less than two hours daily and replace the sedentary activities with activities that require more movement.
Children and adolescents need at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity on most days for maintenance of good health and fitness and for healthy weight during growth.
To prevent dehydration, encourage children to drink fluid regularly during physical activity and drink several glasses of water or other fluid after the physical activity is completed.
Always consult your physician for more information.