Recent research from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine suggests there might be an imbalance in the brain networks of obese children when compared to healthy-weight children that could make obese kids more prone to overeating. Mindfulness could be an effective way to help these children avoid obesity later in life, according to the study.
Mindfulness is generally described as paying attention and living in the present moment with attention, acceptance and conscience. This technique has previously been shown to increase inhibition and decrease a tendency to be impulsive.
“We think mindfulness could recalibrate the imbalance in the brain connections associated with childhood obesity,” Dr. Ronald Cowan, one of the study’s co-authors, in a press release. “Mindfulness has produced mixed results in adults, but so far there have been few studies showing its effectiveness for weight loss in children.”
Weight loss that lasts is very difficult to achieve, possibly because it requires changes in how our brains are wired in addition to changes in diet and exercise. Since obesity and unhealthy eating behaviors may be linked to an imbalance between the connections in the brain that control inhibition and impulse, the study authors claimed that identifying children at risk for developing obesity at an early stage, and using mindfulness approaches to control their eating habits, could be one way to successful weight management.
“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,” noted the study’s lead author, Betty Ann 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.”
The study was published in the journal Heliyon under the title “Imbalance in resting state functional connectivity is associated with eating behaviors and adiposity in children,” and used data collected from the Enhanced Nathan Kline Institute Rockland Sample of 38 children ages 8-13. Five of those children were already considered obese, while six were overweight. The team asked children about their weight and other issues from the Child Eating Behavior Questionnaire, so they could learn their eating habits.
Chodkowski and her study’s co-authors, Cowan and Dr. Kevin Niswender, defined three areas of the brain that might be associated with weight and eating habits:
- The nucleus accumbens, which is associated with reward;
- The frontal pole, which is associated with impulsivity;
- The inferior parietal lobe, which is associated with inhibition, the ability to override an automatic response — in this case, eating.
The team also used MRI scans to analyze the function of these three brain regions at work.
The researchers found that, in children who behaved in ways that led them to eat more, the brain region connected to impulse appeared to be more strongly connected than the part of the brain associated with inhibition. Children who behaved in ways that helped them avoid food had a more active inhibition brain function when compared to the region associated with impulse.
The findings led the researchers to conclude that there might indeed be a link between weight, eating patterns, and balance in the brain function.
“Adults, and especially children, are primed toward 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.”