JAN 22, 2016 11:16 AM PST

Mindfulness Has Potential to Prevent and Treat Childhood Obesity

WRITTEN BY: Julianne Chiaet
Mindfulness is described as purposefully paying attention to your thoughts and feeling in the present moment without judging whether they are right or wrong.
New research suggests obese children have neurological differences that make them more prone to overeating, but practicing "mindfulness" could help prevent and treat the issue.

Losing weight and keeping it off is a battle. In addition to changing exercise and eating habits, losing weight requires changes in how the brain functions. However, what experts know about the neurological differences linked to adult obesity might not apply to children.  

"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,” said chemical and physical biologist BettyAnn Chodkowski. 

Scientists are increasingly recognizing brain regions associated with inhibition, impulse, and reward as modulators of eating habits. Chodkowski and her mentors, psychiatrist Ronald Cowan and neuroendocrinologist Kevin Niswender, took a look at whether mindfulness could be an effective way to approach weight management in children.

Mindfulness is described as purposefully paying attention to your thoughts and feeling in the present moment without judging whether they are right or wrong. It has been shown to decrease impulsivity and increase inhibition.

The Vanderbilt University researchers used data from 38 children who ranged from 8 to 13-years-old. The data included each child’s weight. Five of the children were obese and six were overweight. The children were assessed using a 35-item questionnaire that measured eight aspects of eating behavior. The scientists also examined MRI scans that showed the function of the frontal pole, nucleus accumbens, and inferior parietal lobe, the three brain regions associated impulse, reward, and inhibition (ability to override automatic responses, such as eating). 
The findings revealed a link between weight, eating behavior, and imbalances in brain function. Children who behave in ways that make them eat more appear to have a more strongly connected frontal pole (impulse) than inferior parietal lobe (inhibition). Conversely, children who behave in ways that help them avoid food have a more strongly connected inferior parietal lobe (inhibition) compared to their frontal pole (impulse). 

"Adults and especially children are primed towards eating more," Niswender said. ”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."

More studies need to be done to prove mindfulness as an effective weight loss method for children. Still, the researchers are hopeful that it “could recalibrate the imbalance in the brain connections associated with childhood obesity," Cowan said.

The study was published January 21 in the journal Heliyon

Sources: Elsevier press release via EurekAlert!, journal study "Imbalance in Resting State Functional Connectivity is Associated with Eating Behaviors and Adiposity in Children" via Heliyon
About the Author
  • Julianne (@JuliChiaet) covers health and medicine for LabRoots. Her work has been published in The Daily Beast, Scientific American, and MailOnline. While primarily a science journalist, she has also covered culture and Japanese organized crime. She is the New York Board Representative for the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA). • To read more of her writing, or to send her a message, go to Jchiaet.com
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