Watching less TV, being more active and sleeping more is linked to a healthy body weight in young children.

Getting enough sleep can help children maintain a healthy weight, reveals the EU funded project IDEFICS (Identification and prevention of lifestyle- and Diet-induced health EFfects In Children and infantS). Similarly, the more time children spend in front of the TV or their computers (screen time), the higher their body weight. These results were presented at the 11th European Nutrition Conference in Madrid on Thursday 27 October 2011, ahead of the IDEFICS final meeting mid November in Bremen.

Getting enough sleep is essential

The length of time children sleep varies significantly between European countries (ranging from 9-10 hours in Estonia to more than 11 hours in Belgium). Children from Southern and Eastern Europe tend to get less sleep than children in the North. Children sleeping less than 9 hours a night were twice as likely to be overweight compared to children sleeping 11 hours, and children sleeping 9-10 hours had a 1.3-fold higher chance. The project did not find that time spent sleeping was influenced by season, daylight duration, parental education level, other lifestyle factors, or whether the child was already overweight. Sleep duration may be underpinned by cultural or environmental factors such as unstructured and flexible bedtime routines, not assessed in this study.

TV-viewing centrally linked to body weight

Researchers of IDEFICS identified clusters of 'obesogenic' behaviours (promoting obesity) and found that those behaviours which included TV viewing most related to weight. Notably, children's waist circumference also increased with the time spent in sedentary behaviour in general (i.e. engaging in activity of low energy expenditure, such as sitting). It is still not clear whether the association of screen time with obesity is due to less physical activity or more so, to food intake. The internet as a channel for communicating about food and drinks deserves further attention in this regard.

Link between screen time and diet

Across all countries, almost half of the children sometimes or often watch TV during meals. Children viewing more TV consumed higher-fat and particularly higher-sugar diets. This finding was independent of the child's individual taste preferences for fatty or sugary foods, which were objectively measured in a controlled taste experiment. Professor Wolfgang Ahrens, who coordinates IDEFICS, advises: "Eating in front of the screen should be minimised, and emphasis should be placed on nutritious snacks such as fruit and vegetables. First choice for quenching thirst should be water and other non-caloric drinks. Consumption can be encouraged by enhancing availability at kindergarten, school and home. Parents and caretakers need to be aware they are important role models."

Promoting a healthy environment

Children who are active in their leisure time, have lower screen time and are more likely to eat healthily. Since the built environment impacts activity and diet, policy makers and urban planners should ensure children find enough safe and enticing spaces to move and play, e.g. playgrounds, green spaces and play streets. Where these structures don't exist, parents can check with their community for organising play streets every now and then in the neighbourhood.

Says Professor Ahrens, "it's not right to blame just the parents if their children are overweight. It's time to fully acknowledge the environmental impact on health behaviour. The more effectively policy makers, teachers, caretakers and parents work together in creating a healthy environment, the easier it will be for children to learn healthy living." IDEFICS has made start - let's take it from here.