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10 Years of the IDEFICS/I.Family Studies

The IDEFICS study started in 2007. It was followed by the I.Family study which ran until 2017. Over the past 10 years, more than 16,000 children and adolescents have participated. A big thank you to all participants! We were able to learn:

Sleep makes a difference

We found that children who sleep well also eat more vegetables and generally eat more healthily than children who sleep too little. In addition, children who had enough sleep or improved their sleep habits over the course of the study showed better well-being compared to children who sleep too little. In general, both too little sleep and poor well-being increase the risk of becoming overweight.

Children’s brains prefer sweets

We did fMRI scans with a small group of children and parents. These scans allow us to observe brain signals at the sight of different foods. Compared to adults’ brains, children’s brains showed stronger reactions to sweets. The part of the brain that controls movement was activated – as if the body already was preparing itself to reach for a sweet or cookie, for example.

Children tend to choose food on how they expect it to taste. However, asking children to pay attention to healthier and more nutritious foods made a difference. Their brains showed a bigger response to these factors, and they made healthier choices.

Family members really are similar

Family members resemble one another in terms of body weight tendencies (“Body Mass Index”), risks of disease, and eating habits. Children tend to resemble their mothers more than their fathers. Mothers also seem to have a greater influence on their children's physical activity.

Environments affect physical activity

Giving children access to safe public spaces, such as parks and playgrounds, encourages them to be more physically active. Safe walking and cycling paths are particularly important for young people and adults. So the layout of towns and planning of environments can really make a difference to physical activity. 

Advertising has a strong impact on children

The media has a stronger influence on children’s eating habits than their parents’. Children who watch television, especially television commercials, drink more sweetened drinks, whether or not their parents try to limit this. Based on this knowledge, we think there are good grounds for tougher policies on advertising to children. 

Doctors have better “reference values” for children's health

When doctors do tests, they need to know when results are healthy and when they might suggest problems. Measurements for weight, blood pressure, or blood sugar are important examples: some values indicate health risks or even illness. For adults, doctors have lots of information about this, and use it to understand test results. But up to now, doctors haven’t had such good guidance for children. Following the IDEFICS study, we were able to publish reliable “reference values,” indicating what values to expect in healthy children of different ages.

How are things with children in Europe?

In general, children across Europe are eating too much fat and sugar. They also don’t get enough exercise. Our findings confirm those of many other smaller studies.

Children who get more physical activity and spend less time in front of screens (TV, computer, etc.) tended to have greater well-being. Above all, keeping fit seems important for well-being. This applies to girls even more than boys.

Children who spend more time in front of the screen also tend to sleep less. Teenagers who watch TV more than 2 hours a day have a higher risk of overweight. They also seem to have a higher risk of heart disease. And children who spend more time sitting tend to say they feel lower self-confidence.

You can find more results on the I.Family website: