Five-year-olds who eat breakfast are less likely to be obese, study finds

17 October 2008

Children who eat breakfast daily are less likely to become obese, new research suggests.

Embargoed until 00:01hrs, Friday, October 17

Children who eat breakfast daily are less likely to become obese, new research suggests. Researchers have found that obese five-year-olds are about twice as likely not to eat breakfast as normal-weight children.

The finding has emerged from a UK-wide survey of children born in the first two years of the new millennium that was conducted by researchers at the Institute of Education, University of London. The survey, one of the biggest of its kind, involved weighing and measuring more than 15,000 children.

The survey team at the Centre for Longitudinal Studies also found that children’s breakfast habits were strongly related to parents’ work status. Children whose parents were not employed were almost three times as likely to go without breakfast as those with two working parents.

Professor Heather Joshi, director of the Millennium Cohort Study, says: “This may be due to the lack of a daily routine of rising early enough to eat breakfast. The consequence of not having breakfast is that children – and adults, of course – are more likely to get hungry before lunch and snack on foods that are high in fat and sugar. That could help to explain the link between obesity and not eating breakfast.

“It is also likely, of course, that parents who fail to give their children breakfast may be less organised about nutrition in general.”

However, Professor Joshi adds that economic pressures, such as the inability to afford healthy food, do not appear to be key contributors to weight gain. “Poor children in our study were no more likely to be overweight and only very slightly more likely to be obese,” she says.

Eating regular meals – other than breakfast – also seemed to have no influence on whether a child would be overweight or obese. However, the researchers did find an association between mothers’ education level and children’s weight. Only 3 per cent of the children of graduate mothers were obese, compared to 8 per cent of youngsters whose mothers had no qualifications.

Obese mothers were also more likely to have obese children. Almost 11 per cent of obese mothers had obese daughters, compared to only 0.5 per cent of underweight mothers.

The study found that about one in five of the millennium children was either overweight or obese when they started school. More than 17 per cent of girls and 13.5 per cent of boys were overweight and a further 6 per cent of girls and 5 per cent of boys were obese.

However, there were sharp differences between ethnic groups. Indian children were the least likely to be obese (4%) while black Caribbean and black African children were most likely (12.5%) to fall into this category.

The findings are presented in a report to be published today by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, Millennium Cohort Study Third Survey: A User’s Guide to Initial Findings. The report can be downloaded here after 9am today (October 17).

Further information:

David Budge

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Editors’ footnotes:

1. The Centre for Longitudinal Studies is an Economic and Social Research Council Resource Centre and is devoted to the collection, management and analysis of large-scale longitudinal data. The Centre houses three internationally-renowned birth cohort studies: the 1958 National Child Development Study, the 1970 British Cohort Study and the Millennium Cohort Study. The MCS 3 survey was co-funded by government departments in the four UK countries.

2. The third survey of the UK-wide Millennium Cohort Study took place, mostly in 2006, when the children had reached age 5. It involved 15,246 families and 15,460 children because some families had either twins or triplets. Previous surveys of the families had taken place when the children were aged 9 months, in 2001-2, and when they were three years old, mostly during 2004. The study was designed to over-sample families living in electoral wards with high child poverty rates, and in areas of high ethnic minority concentration in England.

3. Overweight and obesity are generally calculated in terms of Body Mass Index (weight in kg divided by the square of height in metres). Although there is a standard pair of cut-off points generally agreed for adults (25 and 30), various benchmarks are used for children. The definitions of overweight and obesity used in this report are those of the International Obesity Task Force (IOTF), which are now accepted internationally and were also used for the MCS cohort at age 3. The value of the cut-offs used at 60 months were for overweight, bmi=”17.42″ and 17.12 for boys and girls respectively, 19.30 and 19.17 for obesity. These cut-offs were estimated to be on growth curves that would reach 25 and 30 at age 18.

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