Posted April 6, 2009

Kids, control and obesity

Temple researchers offer perspectives on newly published studies on self-regulation and childhood obesity

Ask preschool children to hold off on playing with an attractive toy and they will have different reactions; reactions that may predict which of those children will be overweight as pre-teens.

Two separate reports published in the April issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals, examined the possible link between self-regulation and childhood obesity. The researchers found that those preschool children who could not self-regulate their behavior or delay gratification appear more likely to gain weight more rapidly over the next several years.

Robert Whitaker
Photo by Joseph V. Labolito/Temple University


Commenting on these studies, researchers at Temple University’s College of Health Professions and School of Medicine suggest that there is a wide range in children’s ability to self-regulate their behavior and that lower levels of self-regulation might not necessarily be negative in all situations.

“Might the children who have poor self-regulation around that toy be the most likely to produce the imaginative toys for the next generation of children?” write Robert Whitaker, M.D., M.P.H., professor of public health and pediatrics at the Center for Obesity Research and Education, and Rachel Gooze, a graduate student in public health, in an accompanying editorial.

In the studies, preschool children were presented with two tasks: one that tested self-control at 3 years of age in which children were asked to wait before playing with a toy; and a second that tested delay of gratification at 5 years of age in which children were asked to wait before eating a desired snack food. The researchers found that those who waited the least amount of time tended to be heavier in their early teens compared to the children who showed higher self-control and more ability to delay gratification.

While Whitaker and Gooze agree that self-regulation may play a part in childhood obesity, their editorial points out that obesity is a complex health issue that can’t be pinned on one factor. They write that self-regulation is influenced by “environments and experiences during early childhood” and that a child can improve self-regulation.

They also suggest how clinicians might use the information from this research on children’s self-regulation to help children and families. “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,” said Whitaker.