The study by Prof. Jess Haines, Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition, was published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics, a monthly peer-reviewed medical journal published by the American Medical Association. It’s also the subject of an editorial in the same issue.
“Overall, childhood obesity rates remain high in North America,” said Haines, especially among racial and ethnic minorities and children in low-income households.
Previous studies have shown that obesity rates are lower in households with regular family meals, adequate sleep and limited screen time — no matter the socio-economic status or racial/ethnic group, she said.
Looking to see whether a home-based intervention could make a difference, she teamed up with Dr. Elsie Taveras, chief of general pediatrics at MassGeneral Hospital for Children in Boston and a professor at Harvard Medical School.
Before joining U of G in 2010, Haines spent three years as an instructor with Harvard’s Obesity Prevention Program, developing and evaluating initiatives to help children achieve and maintain healthy weights.
They studied 121 high-risk families with children aged two to five at four community health centres around Boston. Nearly half of the children were overweight or obese, and all slept in bedrooms with televisions.
Half of the participants were randomly selected for the “Healthy Habits, Happy Homes” program that encourages regular mealtimes, adequate sleep and limited screen time. Participants also learned parenting practices such as role modeling and limit-setting. Parents were not told that these measures were designed to limit weight gain.
After six months, children in the intervention group slept about 45 minutes longer per day than children in the control group. The former group spent about an hour per day less in watching television on weekends, and their body mass index (BMI) dropped by an average of 0.18.
For the control group, weekend TV viewing increased (weekday TV viewing dropped by a small amount for both groups), and BMI rose by 0.21. The researchers controlled for expected increases in height, weight and BMI for preschoolers.
Rapid weight gain among young at-risk children can lead to higher obesity rates later in life, Haines said.
“Our findings demonstrate that relatively simple, no-cost changes in routines within the home can help children maintain or achieve a healthful weight.”
The researchers now plan to look at whether observed changes can be maintained and how much intervention it takes to change behaviours.
“For now, interventions such as ours can be one way of keeping young children off an obesity trajectory that would be hard to alter by the time they enter middle school,” Taveras said.
Also involved in the study were Julia McDonald and Ashley O’Brien of the Harvard Obesity Prevention Program; Dr. Clement Bottino and Marie Evans Schmidt of Children’s Hospital Boston; and Bettylou Sherry of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The study was supported by the CDC Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
Prof. Jess Haines
Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition
519-824-4120, Ext. 53780