Watching television, eating family meals and the safety of the neighborhood all play a role in children's weight, according to researchers at the University of Missouri.
The study surveyed more than 8,000 children between kindergarten and third grade to identify eating and activity factors associated with school-age children's weight.
Researchers grouped the children into three different groups: those who were not overweight during kindergarten and first grade but were overweight by third grade, those who became overweight during kindergarten and remained overweight through third grade and those who were never overweight.
The researchers found children who watch more television and eat fewer family meals are more likely to be overweight once they reach first grade. Children who watch more TV, eat fewer family meals and live in neighborhoods perceived by their parents as less safe for outdoor play are more likely to be overweight from kindergarten on.
"Intervening quickly on children's behalf is of the utmost importance," wrote the researchers. "Clinical overweight among this age group tracks notably into adulthood.
"When working with families to prevent and treat childhood weight problems, professionals should attend to children's time spent with screen media, the frequency of family mealtimes and parents' perceptions of neighborhood safety for children's outdoor play."
There has been growing pressure on food makers and advertisers to develop responsible food marketing practices for children. Disney for example recently became part of a new task force designed to examine the link between TV commercials and the rising rate of childhood obesity.
Made up of representatives from the food, television and advertising industries, the Joint Task Force on Child Obesity was established in response to mounting concerns over the impact of product marketing on American children's health. It plans to issue a report based on the work it will conduct, which will be designed to educate parents and encourage best practices for industry.
According to a report issued in September by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), one third of American children are either obese or at risk for obesity. And the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveal that in the past quarter century, the proportion of overweight children aged 6-11 has doubled, while the number of overweight adolescents has tripled.