April 6, 2009 / 8:29 PM / 10 years ago

Kids' self-control affects future overweight risk

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Two new studies demonstrate that young children who have a harder time controlling themselves gain weight faster and are at greater risk of being overweight later in childhood.

The good news? There’s growing evidence that kids can be taught to control their behavior — and their eating — more effectively. “It looks like you can train kids to learn how to regulate themselves,” Dr. Lori A. Francis of the Pennsylvania State University in State College, an investigator on one of the studies, told Reuters Health.

Francis and her colleague Dr. Elizabeth J. Susman measured the ability of 1,061 children to control themselves at age 3 and to delay gratification at age 5, and then followed their weight gain up to age 12.

In the first test, the 3-year-olds were left alone with a tantalizing toy for 150 seconds; those who were able to wait for at least 75 seconds before playing with it were classified as having a high degree of self-regulation, while those who couldn’t wait that long were considered to have low self-regulation.

At age 5, the children were given a small pile of M&Ms, animal crackers or pretzels (depending on which was their favorite) and a large pile. They were told they could eat from the small pile at any time after the supervisor left the room, but would have to ring a bell to get the interviewer to come back; they could have the big pile if they waited until the interviewer returned on his or her own.

The youngsters who had difficulty with both self-control tasks gained weight the fastest, Francis and Susman found. They were also more likely to have body mass indexes that were higher than normal at age 12.

In the other study, Dr. Julie C. Lumeng of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and colleagues tested 4-year-olds’ ability to delay gratification using a version of the small pile/big pile test. In this case children were told they could have the bigger pile if they waited seven minutes before sampling the treats. Of the 805 children in the study, 47% couldn’t wait the full seven minutes. These children were 29% more likely to be overweight at age 11.

Helping children learn to self-regulate has been shown to improve their behavior and influence their food choices and attitudes toward TV watching, Francis and Susman note in their report. Behavior interventions specifically targeted toward eating could likely be effective too, Francis said.

In an editorial accompanying the studies, Dr. Robert C. Whitaker and Rachel A. Gooze of Temple University in Philadelphia note that while helping children build self-control could indeed offer a potential way to fight obesity, seeing children with less self-control as having “self-regulation failure” could carry risks.

“Labeling low self-regulation as a problem might work against pediatricians’ efforts to help parents embrace their child’s assets and view their child’s limitations as possible strengths,” they write.

For example, Whitaker and Gooze say the children who have the hardest time waiting to play with a toy may grow up to “produce the imaginative toys for the next generation of children,” while being restrained in the presence of tasty food could represent a problem in situations where food is scarce.

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