New research suggests mindfulness, or the ability to pay attention to purpose and stay in the present moment, may help children from becoming obese.
Vanderbilt University researchers discovered the balance in brain networks among children who are obese is different compared to healthy-weight children, making them more prone to over-eating.
As such, investigators believe learning to be mindful could be an effective way to help children avoid obesity. The study appears in the journal Heliyo.
Experts explain that long-lasting weight loss is difficult; possibly because it requires changes in how the brain functions in addition to changes in diet and exercise.
The Vanderbilt researchers believe identifying children at risk for obesity early on — and using mindfulness approaches to control eating — may be one way to approach weight management.
Mindfulness has been shown to increase inhibition and decrease impulsivity. Since obesity and unhealthy eating behaviors may be associated with an imbalance between the connections in the brain that control inhibition and impulse, the researchers say mindfulness could help treat or prevent childhood obesity.
“We know the brain plays a big role in obesity in adults, but what we understand about the neurological connections associated with obesity might not apply to children,” explained lead author BettyAnn Chodkowski.
“We wanted to look at the way children’s brains function in more detail so we can better understand what is happening neurologically in children who are obese.”
Chodkowski and her mentors, Ronald Cowan and Kevin Niswender, defined three areas of the brain that may be associated with weight and eating habits. The first is the inferior parietal lobe, a brain area associated with inhibition — or the ability to override an automatic response (in this case eating). Also the frontal pole, a region associated with impulsivity; and finally, the nucleus accumbens, a brain section associated with reward.
Researchers used data collected by the Enhanced Nathan Kline Institute from 38 children aged eight to 13. Five of the children were classified as obese, and six were overweight. Data included children’s weights and their answers to the Child Eating Behavior Questionnaire, which describes the children’s eating habits.
The researchers also used MRI scans that showed the function of the three regions of the brain they wanted to study.
The results revealed a preliminary link between weight, eating behavior, and balance in brain function.
In children who behave in ways that make them eat more, the part of the brain associated with being impulsive appears to be more strongly connected than the part of the brain associated with inhibition.
Conversely, in children who behave in ways that help them avoid food, the part of the brain associated with inhibition is more strongly connected compared to the part of the brain associated with being impulsive.
“Adults, and especially children, are primed towards eating more,” said Dr. Niswender, from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
“This is great from an evolutionary perspective — they need food to grow and survive. But in today’s world, full of readily available, highly advertised, energy dense foods, it is putting children at risk of obesity.”
“We think mindfulness could recalibrate the imbalance in the brain connections associated with childhood obesity,” said Dr. Cowan, from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
“Mindfulness has produced mixed results in adults, but so far there have been few studies showing its effectiveness for weight loss in children.”