Are your children getting chubby? If so, you're right to be concerned: Childhood obesity, which has doubled over the past three decades, has been linked to a variety of physical and emotional ailments, and can set a lifelong pattern of poor eating.
New research presents good news and bad news regarding this condition. The bad news—which may come as a relief to parents who are wondering what they are doing wrong—is that some kids' brains appear to be wired in such a way to encourage overeating. Their lack of willpower isn't a moral (or parental) failing; it's a biological condition.
The good news is that there's a possible way of counteracting these unfortunate neural connections, one that doesn't directly involve diet or exercise: mindfulness training.
Some kids' brains appear to be wired in such a way to encourage overeating.
"Mindfulness may help treat and/or prevent childhood obesity," a research team from the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine writes in the journal Heliyon. The learned ability to stay focused on the present moment "may recalibrate the imbalance in neural systems" associated with the condition.
The researchers—BettyAnn Chodkowski, Ronald Cowan, and Kevin Niswender—used data on 38 children between the ages of eight and 13, all of whom answered detailed questions about their eating habits. (Five were categorized as obese, while another six were overweight.)
Using MRI scans, the researchers examined activity in three distinct areas of the children's brains: the inferior parietal lobe (which is associated with the ability to override automatic responses to stimuli); the frontal pole (associated with impulsivity); and the nucleus accumbens (associated with reward).
The results indicate that unhealthy eating, and the increase in body fat that results, is driven by an imbalance between two different patterns of brain activity: one that stimulates impulsiveness (the fundamental drive to eat and therefore survive), and another that stimulates inhibition (which puts the brakes on when you've eaten too much).
This imbalance helps to explain why "long-lasting weight-loss maintenance may be elusive," the researchers add. "(Its) early development indicates the importance of early identification and treatment of children at risk (for obesity)."
And by "treatment," they're talking about mindfulness training—cultivating one's ability to pay close attention to what's happening at the moment, and observe one's thoughts and feelings rather than being enveloped by them.
"Mindfulness is associated with increased response inhibition and decreased impulsivity," the researchers note, adding that it is "readily translatable to children."
While a recent study found mindfulness training can reduce adult obesity, other research has produced mixed results. Chodkowski and her colleagues suggest it may be particularly effective in children, whose brains are at their peak level of plasticity.
Perhaps the elementary school curriculum should be expanded to encompass reading, writing, arithmetic—and re-training the brain.
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.