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Mindfulness could help prevent obesity in children

Unhealthy eating patterns could be changed by teaching children increased mindfulness, researchers propose in a new study.
By Stephen Feller   |   Jan. 21, 2016 at 11:30 AM

NASHVILLE, Jan. 21 (UPI) -- Based on a study of connections between the brain and appetite, researchers at Vanderbilt University think teaching mindfulness practices to children could help treat or prevent obesity.

Unhealthy eating patterns associated with an imbalance between connections in the brain could be changed by teaching children increased awareness of their thoughts and actions, researchers propose in a new study.

Recent studies have shown meditation and mindfulness practices can help improve neural connections, in addition to affecting personality and stress. Mindfulness is a method of being more aware of actions and surroundings as they happen, and training the mind to think before giving in to impulses and urges.

Some studies have also found a genetic role of obesity, including that it can be passed from fathers to children through sperm.

Researchers at Vanderbilt note children are drawn to eating, even in the absence of eating-related stimuli, and that eating habits and physical activity levels also affect when, why and what children eat. Giving them a method to be more aware of what and how much they eat could help change the practices that lead to childhood obesity, the researchers said.

"Adults, and especially children, are primed towards eating more," Dr. Kevin Niswender, a researcher at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, said in a press release. "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."

In the study, published in the journal Heliyon, researchers analyzed MRIs for 38 children between age 8 and 13 who were at a resting state.

First, researchers measured the connectivity between brain regions associated with inhibition, impulsivity, and reward. For each of the children, they assessed the relationship between BMI and eating behaviors as measured with the Child Eating Behavior Questionnaire. Based on a comparison of behavioral and brain data, the researchers found that as impulsivity-biased imbalances in the brain increase, food approach behaviors go up and avoidance behaviors go down.

Based on the combination of physical and psychological factors at work, the researchers suggest mindfulness practices be combined with efforts to change eating habits and physical activity in order to increase self-control as new diet and lifestyle habits are formed.

"We think mindfulness could recalibrate the imbalance in the brain connections associated with childhood obesity," said Dr. Ronald Cowan, of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. "Mindfulness has produced mixed results in adults, but so far there have been few studies showing its effectiveness for weight loss in children."

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