Childhood Obesity Linked to Neural Ability to Self‑Regulate
A recent study suggests rising rates of childhood obesity could be less about the desire to eat unhealthy foods, and more about how children respond to that desire. The research, published in the journal NeuroImage, found adolescents who were either obese or at-risk of obesity had consistently less neural activity associated with self-regulation, finding it harder to limit their eating than their lean peers.
“This study establishes that risk for obesity isn’t driven exclusively by the absence or presence of urges to eat high-calorie foods, but also, and perhaps most importantly, by the ability to control those urges,” said senior investigator, Bradley Peterson, MD, director of the Institute for the Developing Mind at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
It’s an insight critical to India, which, with 14.4 million obese children, has the second highest rate of childhood obesity in the world. And it’s an insight critical to parents, who may be contributing to poor self-regulatory abilities in children, even as they worry over properly nutritious diets.
The study focused on 36 adolescents between the ages of 14 to 19 years. Out of the 36, 10 were overweight/obese, 16 were lean but considered at high-risk for obesity because they had overweight/obese mothers, and 10 were lean/low-risk with lean mothers. The adolescents were then exposed to words that described high-fat foods, low-fat foods and non-food items while their neural responses were studied using fMRI. Then, they were asked to rate their appetite. Finally, all participants were offered a buffet with a low- and high-calorie food items as researchers studied their real-world response.
Researchers found brain circuits that support reward and emotion were stimulated in all participants evenly after seeing food-related words. However, the difference lay in their self-regulation responses. Adolescents who were obese or high-risk had less activation in attention and self-regulation circuits. The results were opposite in lean/low-risk adolescents. The fMRI findings were mirrored in the real world as well, with obese participants consuming the most amount of food, clearly reflecting their difficulty controlling their urges for food.
This study has major implications toward the ways in which we can treat childhood obesity. Instead of entirely focusing on losing body weight, limiting cues that add to the challenge of self-regulation (by encouraging consumption of high-calorie foods) may have a more profound impact. The study also offers a tentative blueprint for prevention by way of building children’s self-control skills, part of a broader cognitive ability called executive function.
Sadly, other research suggests we’re far from following it. A recent paper published in Economic & Political Weekly described a link between Indian children’s increased consumption of junk foods and households’ rising socio-economic status. As noted by Quartz, first to report on the study, the researchers make no causal claims, as they did not control for other factors. While increased household wealth may mean families are able to afford costlier processed foods, or may be more interested in what is perceived as Western consumption habits, it may also mean parents are providing fewer opportunities for children to learn to self-regulate in the face of plenty.