Child obesity: Study suggests training kids to pay less attention to food might help them eat less

February 15, 2014

Among the multiple factors that can cause obesity is an abnormal neurocognitive or behavioral response to food cues. The brain becomes wired to seek – and expect – greater rewards from food, which leads to unhealthful overeating.

Attention modification programs, which train a person to ignore or disregard specific, problematic cues or triggers, have been used effectively to treat cases of anxiety and substance abuse. In a novel study published this week in the journal Appetite, Kerri Boutelle, PhD, professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, and colleagues report using a single session of attention modification to decrease overeating in .

"Attentional bias is a long-studied psychological phenomenon," said Boutelle. "Attentional bias to food means that food grabs a person's attention. If two people were in a room with potato chips on the table, the person with would be paying attention to, maybe looking at, the chips and the person without the bias would not really notice or pay attention to them.

"We believe that there is a group of people who are inherently sensitive to food cues and, over time, eating in response to paying attention to food makes them pay even more attention. It's based on Pavlovian conditioning."

Obesity in the United States is a well-documented problem, with more than a third of American adults considered to be obese. Child obesity is equally alarming, with an estimated one-third of American children (4 to 5 million individuals) overweight or obese. These children are at greater risk for cardiovascular disease, cancer, orthopedic and endocrine conditions and more likely to die earlier.

Boutelle and colleagues investigated whether attention modification training might be another way to treat problematic eating and obesity in children. In a novel , they recruited 24 overweight and obese children between the ages of 8 and 12 and split them into two groups.

One group underwent an attention modification program (AMP) in which they watched pairs of words quickly flash upon a computer screen. One was a food word, such as "cake;" the other was a non-food word, such as "desk." After the words had flashed and disappeared, a letter appeared on-screen in the place of either the food word or the non-food word. The viewing child was asked to immediately press the right or left button associated with the letter's location.

"This is called 'implicit training' as it happens so fast that some people might not realize what is happening," said Boutelle. "The AMP trained attention away from food words because the letter always appeared in the spot of the non-food word while in the other group, the condition trained attention was split with the letter appearing half of the time in the food word location and half in the non-food word location."

The two computer programs differentially affected eating in the overweight children after only one training session. "It's surprising to find differences in eating after just one training program," said Boutelle, "but it's encouraging because it suggests that a longer program might have greater effect."

Boutelle said she hopes the pilot study will spawn larger and longer similar investigations, which could ultimately provide another means of addressing overeating and obesity. "Assuming attentional bias training is effective in larger studies, it could be provided in the form of a computer game which could be a stand-alone program or it could potentially enhance their ability to stick to a diet by decreasing the paid to ."

Explore further: New approach to management of overeating in children

Related Stories

New approach to management of overeating in children

December 8, 2011

Overeating, whether in children or adults, often takes place even in the absence of hunger, resulting in weight gain and obesity. Current methods to treat such overeating in youth focus on therapies that restrict what kids ...

Clinical trial teaches binge eaters to toss away cravings

February 10, 2012

Of 190 million obese Americans, approximately 10-15 percent engage in harmful binge eating. During single sittings, these over-eaters consume large servings of high-caloric foods. Sufferers contend with weight gain and depression ...

Is guided self-help effective in treating childhood obesity?

April 1, 2013

It is known that family-based treatment that combines nutrition and exercise education, along with behavior modification, is a good approach to help children lose weight. But clinic-based weight-control programs for childhood ...

Recommended for you

A metabolic master switch underlying human obesity

August 19, 2015

Obesity is one of the biggest public health challenges of the 21st century. Affecting more than 500 million people worldwide, obesity costs at least $200 billion each year in the United States alone, and contributes to potentially ...

Scientists probe obesity's ties to breast cancer risk

August 20, 2015

Obesity is a well-known risk factor for breast cancer, but researchers haven't figured out what connects the two. A new study suggests the link may be due to a change in breast tissue structure, which might promote breast ...

Can a new drug brown the fat and trim the obese person?

May 28, 2015

New research has found that a variant of a drug used to treat pulmonary arterial hypertension prompts weight loss in obese mice. Among mice fed a high-fat diet, those who did not get the medication became obese while medicated ...

Changing stem cell structure may help fight obesity

February 17, 2015

The research, conducted at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), found that a slight regulation in the length of primary cilia, small hair-like projections found on most cells, prevented the production of fat cells from ...

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

The Shootist
5 / 5 (1) Feb 15, 2014
Making children play out of doors for a minimum of a couple of hours a day might make a dent in the little fat kid population. Encourage your local scrool board to bring back recess. Or, better yet, home school your children.

Obesity has damn little to do with food.
Ratfish
not rated yet Feb 17, 2014
Ha! It has everything to do with food. We're far too biomechanically efficient to cancel out a package of Chips Ahoy and a 20oz Pepsi even with a couple hours at the playground.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.