Teen obesity is an epidemic that has grown considerably throughout the years. Unhealthy weight gain in teens is often attributed to poor diet, lack of exercise, and a genetic predisposition to obesity. It is commonly believed that if a child eats less, he or she will eventually lose weight. But it's not so much about quantity than it is about frequency, according to a recent study. Findings suggest that teens — including those who are genetically predisposed — could lower their risk of becoming overweight or obese by consuming five meals a day.

A team of researchers from the University of Finland conducted a 16-year follow-up study that examined more than 4,000 Finnish teens from before birth to age 16, identifying the early-life risk factors for obesity. They also observed for any possible association between the disease and meal frequency.

The meal plan that teens followed in the study consisted of breakfast, lunch, dinner, and two snacks. Boys and girls who followed a regular five-meal-a-day plan were found to lower their risk of being overweight or obesity, the Daily Mail reports. The researchers found that there was a reduction in belly fat, or abdominal obesity, in boys when they ate five small meals a day. Skipping the most important meal of the day — breakfast — was associated with a greater body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference.

Belly fat is a risk factor for metabolic syndrome, which is the name for a group of risk factors that identify whether a person is at high risk for developing heart disease, diabetes, and stroke, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Men who have a waist circumference of more than 40 inches, and women who have a waist circumference of more than 35 inches, could possibly be at risk for metabolic syndrome.

Regularly following the five-meal-a-day plan also reduced the effect of eight gene mutations that cause obesity. While genetic deficiencies are typically rare, variations in these genes can predispose a person to obesity. Parents’ weight may also predetermine if their children will be obese even before they are born. In the study, maternal obesity was found to be a greater risk factor for a child becoming obese, while paternal obesity closely followed. Children whose parents were both overweight with a BMI of 25 or more were also more likely to become obese.

“These findings emphasize the importance of taking an early whole family approach to childhood obesity prevention,” said Anne Jaaskelainen, of the University of Eastern Finland, reports the Daily Mail. “Furthermore, it is important to be aware the effects of predisposing genotypes can be modified by lifestyle habits such as regular meal frequency."

According to the American Heart Association, one in three American children is overweight or obese. Teen obesity can lead to increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, asthma, and breathing difficulties during sleep.

To learn how you can help your child lose weight, click here.