Poor "executive functioning" in girls at age ten may be linked to weight gain during their teen years, and some of the excess pounds might be tied to binge eating, a U.S. study suggests.
Researchers assessed almost 2,500 girls at multiple points between ages 10 and 16 to see how their behavior and personality traits might be linked to their eating habits and weight. Girls whose parents said they were more impulsive or less adept at planning at age 10 appeared to gain more weight through age 16.
About 10 percent of the girls reported binge eating at some point during the study, and doing so at age 12 appeared to account for some of the excess weight gain the more impulsive girls experienced by age 16.
"Children are constantly cued to eat by food commercials, vending machines, etc., so it is easy to imagine how a child who is poorly inhibited could have difficulty resisting these cues to eat," said lead study author Andrea Goldschmidt, an eating disorders researcher at the University of Chicago.
Even though the study only found a small difference in weight gain for the more impulsive girls, it was still statistically meaningful and might mean the teens are more likely to be overweight or obese as adult women, Goldschmidt said by email.
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"For some people gaining only a few pounds could move them from the non-overweight to overweight range," Goldschmidt said.
Globally, roughly 1.9 billion adults are overweight or obese, as are about 42 million children under the age of 5, according to the World Health Organization. Obesity increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, joint disorders and certain cancers.
While many things - including activity levels and eating habits - can influence whether people become obese, emotional and behavioral tendencies can also play a role, making it important that doctors understand any psychological factors that might contribute to weight gain.
To explore the potential role of binge eating in the connection between executive functioning and excess weight, the researchers assessed girls' weight relative to their height four times over the course of the study period.
Based on their weight relative to their height, as many as 35 percent of the study participants were overweight or obese between the ages of 10 and 16, the study found.
Researchers also evaluated executive functioning and planning skills using standardized tests and assessed the participants for symptoms of attention deficits or hyperactivity disorders.
Even though poor impulse control can to some extent be a hallmark of adolescence, the findings suggest that poorer behavioral regulation at age 10 may lead to greater weight gain during the teen years, the authors conclude in the journal Pediatrics.
One limitation of the study, however, is its reliance on teens to accurately recall and report their eating habits and note whether they were prone to binges over the past year, the researchers note. Similarly, the study relied on parents to accurately note their daughters' levels of impulsiveness.
Even so, it's possible that certain brain regions may orchestrate a range of self-control behaviors that include impulsivity and binging, said Myles Faith, a psychology researcher at the University at Buffalo.
"Psychological interventions have been developed for binge eating problems, including cognitive-behavioral and interpersonal psychotherapies," Faith, who wasn't involved in the study, said by email. "These treatments strive to change belief systems, eating routines, or relationship patterns to combat binge eating."
Parents and caregivers can help children and teens by avoiding a focus on reaching specific weight goals, and instead concentrating on improving the home environment by keeping fruits and vegetables readily available for snacks and limiting the presence of sugary, low-nutrient foods.
This can help the whole family make healthier choices without the child being singled out, Goldschmidt said.
"The focus should be on moderation and overall health rather than being a certain size or number," Goldschmidt added.