The causes of childhood obesity are more nuanced than simply overeating, according to one new study from University College London. The study found that lifestyle factors and environment are a key factor in whether or not a child will become obese, challenging the view that obesity rates are only due to bad diet and overeating. The findings of the study were published in the medical journal Pediatrics.

Researchers examined children from 19,244 UK families, born between September 2000 and January 2002. The data was collected by the Millennium Cohort Study.

According to one of the lead researchers, UCL Professor Yvonne Kelly, from the department of epidemiology and public health, “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.”

The data showed how regular bedtimes, enough sleep, and a healthy breakfast are key for preventing childhood obesity. Also, the researchers found that mothers who smoke were more likely to give birth to a child who would later become obese.  They found that neither consumption of sugary drinks nor amount of time spent watching television are reliable predictors of which children become overweight or obese. The study also confirmed that babies born to obese or overweight mothers were more likely to put on excess weight, but found that breastfeeding and earlier consumption of solid good did not have an impact on their level of risk.

President of the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health, Neena Modi, summarized the importance of the study, saying:

“This paper not only highlights this point but also emphasizes the multifactorial nature of obesity; put simply, it isn’t just caused by eating too much. This research points to the role of environmental pressures on children’s weight such as having an irregular bedtime or insufficient sleep; in other words children are very vulnerable to multiple influences.”

Modi also supported the conclusion of the study, which said that greater intervention is necessary, early in children’s lives, is necessary to ensure they don’t grow up in an environment that increases their risk of obesity.

Modi added:

“We have long drawn attention to the importance of early intervention in tackling childhood, and indeed adult, obesity. The earlier the action, the higher the chance of preventing obesity taking a hold and adversely affecting life-long health. To reduce the extremely worrying prevalence of child obesity and overweight, a combination of measures is required. These include support for parents before, during and after pregnancy, and education of families about the importance of leading healthy lives.”

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