This morning I attended the press conference announcing the awarding of a grant that brings together the University of Michigan and Michigan State University in looking at reducing the prevalence of overweight and obese children. The project seeks to look at the effects of an intervention that would educate children on how to better control their emotions and behaviors during times of stress so that they do not impulsively over-eat in response to stressful situations.
Listening to the rationale about providing coping mechanisms brought to mind another study that was done, also with young children, which were affectionately called the “Marshmallow Studies”. I first heard about this in an episode of Radiolab and, for some reason, think about it quite a bit. In a nutshell, it was found that children who were unable to delay gratification in eating a marshmallow or similar sweet that was placed in front of them had less desirable outcomes such as lower S.A.T. scores and higher body-mass-index later in life. Those that could resist gratification had better outcomes. It was also possible to increase a child’s self-control by teaching them mental tricks as a way to cope with the craving they feel when placed in front of a treat.
The idea of providing a coping mechanism in controlling one’s behavior is pretty fascinating. This is especially relevant when you consider that impulsively eating and overeating, even when you are not hungry, is often a result of stress. Knowing that stress causes a propensity to seek out comforting foods, this could be a significant predictor of overweight or obesity.
Individuals in lower socioeconomic statuses, such as many of those who attend Head Start and are the focus of this research initiative, also tend to be more overweight and obese. There are many factors that could contribute to their weight status, and living in more stressful conditions due to the home environment is one of them. Perhaps this stressful environment is what stimulates overeating in the young and this behavior is carried throughout life; by providing a mechanisms to cope with the stressful situation, there could perhaps be a way to stauch the growing obesity epidemic.. It will be interesting to monitor this in the coming years to see how much learning to cope with one’s emotions and behaviors in times of stress can influence later weight status.