Instant Gratification Promotes Obesity in Kids?

I have previously blogged about how problems with impulse control can promote overeating and thus weight gain. According to the theory of externality proposed by Schachter, individuals prone to obesity have a compromised capacity to self-regulate and are thus hypersensitive to external cues, particularly cues that incite hunger and eating. In line with this theory, previous studies have suggested that failure to self-regulate (or control impulsiveness) may play a role in the development of overweight and obesity in youth and adults.

This theory now finds new support in a study just published by Lori Francis and Elizabeth Susman, Pennsylvania State University, PA, USA, in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.

The researchers analysed data from 1061 children as part of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, a prospective longitudinal cohort study conducted in 10 sites across the United States.

Children who showed higher self-regulation (less impulsiveness) in behavioural tests at ages 3 and 5 years had a lower BMI and were less likely to gain excess weight over the 9-year observation period than children who were less able to self-regulate. Interestingly the weight gain and self-regulation findings held only for girls, despite the finding that boys exhibited greater problems with self-regulation in the self-control and delay of gratification procedures. 

As we all know, of course, impulsiveness is not something that is rare or surprising in kids. However, there are wide ranges of such behaviours even amongst kids in the same family. I guess it takes great parenting skills to reign in the impulsiveness and “childish” behaviours that promote the need for instant gratification when it comes to food.

These findings certainly highlight the potential importance of improving self-regulatory capacities in youth. Given that impulsivity appears to be a trait rather than a state, parents should perhaps be counseled to begin addressing the at-risk child’s eating and self-regulatory behaviors as early as possible rather than delaying with the hope that overweight-promoting behaviors will disappear with passing time.

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