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mindfulness and obesity prevention

We all know that sustainable weight management requires a thoughtful diet and regular exercise, but new research from Vanderbilt University suggests that mindfulness techniques could play an important role in preventing and treating childhood obesity.

Decades of research have shown that mindfulness training can have profound effects on the brain and body — reducing stress, improving performance, even alleviating chronic pain and depression — by changing the way various parts of the brain communicate with each other. Earlier studies investigating the effect of mindfulness meditation on overweight adults have been met with mixed results, so Vanderbilt researchers wanted to see if those techniques would be more effective in children.

The team, led by study author BettyAnn Chodkowski, a PhD candidate at Vanderbilt’s School of Medicine, analyzed data from the Enhanced Nathan Kline Institute on 38 children between the ages of 8 and 13, including their answers to a dietary behavior questionnaire as well as MRI brain scans showing specific areas of the children’s brains. Eleven of the children were classified as either obese or overweight. Findings were published in the journal Heliyon.

“We know the brain plays a big role in obesity in adults, but what we understand about the neurological connections associated with obesity might not apply to children,” Chodkowski said in a statement. “We wanted to look at the way children’s brains function in more detail so we can better understand what is happening neurologically in children who are obese.”

Their research found an intriguing link between eating behavior and brain patterns: The frontal pole, which is associated with impulsivity, had more connectivity in the brains of the overweight and obese children. In the brains of the healthy-weight children, the inferior parietal lobe, linked to inhibition, showed more connectivity.

Because mindfulness training has been shown to increase inhibition while decreasing impulsivity, the study’s findings suggest it could be used effectively in fighting child obesity.

“We think mindfulness could recalibrate the imbalance in the brain connections associated with childhood obesity,” said Ronald Cowan, PhD, MD, a professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt who helped guide Chodkowski’s research. “Mindfulness has produced mixed results in adults…. So far there have been few studies showing its effectiveness for weight loss in children.”

Mindfulness training for children can take many forms, including simple listening, breathing, eating, and walking exercises, Sarah Rudell Beach explains in the Huffington Post. “You can provide your children with many opportunities to add helpful practices to their toolkit,” Beach writes. “Some of them will work for them and some won’t. But it’s fun to experiment.”

To learn more about the many benefits of mindfulness training and techniques, see “Brain-Body Benefits of Meditation” in our January/February 2015 issue.

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