Aug. 16, 2012 -- Children who show self-control in the face of temptation may be less likely to have weight problems as adults.
In a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics, 4-year-olds participated in a test measuring self-control between 1968 and 1974. Kids were asked to choose between an immediate small food reward (for example, one marshmallow) or to wait for an unspecified time for an even bigger treat -- two marshmallows.
According to the study, being able to wait it out was linked to lower body mass index as adults 30 years later. For each minute they delayed reaching for the tasty treat as children, there was a 0.2-point decrease in their body mass index as adults. At follow-up, 24% of 164 participants were overweight and 9% were obese.
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“We know that we are living in a toxic food environment,” says researcher Tanya Schlam, PhD. She is an assistant scientist at the University of Wisconsin Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention in Madison. “Fast foods are available everywhere and it’s so easy to not get any exercise and lead a sedentary life.”
The findings suggest that “having self-control seems to help mitigate or lessen that risk in terms of being able to resist the temptations that are all around us,” she says.
The study may also help identify kids at risk for obesity. Some seemed to know how to distract themselves in the face of temptation, while others did not, she says.
“Since our toxic food environment seems unlikely to change a lot in the near future, high self-control can help people resist overeating and stay at a healthy weight despite temptations.”
Teaching Kids to Make Healthier Food Choices
So how can one teach or foster self-control and delayed gratification? Schoolyard games such as other “Mother May I” and “Red Light, Green Light” can help kids learn self-control. These games encourage patience and listening skills.
Martial arts and mindfulness meditation may also increase children's self-control, Schlam says.
“Parents may want to consider encouraging their child to learn martial arts, mindfulness meditation, or yoga,” she suggests. “Programs that help children increase their self-control involve lots of practice, with the tasks becoming progressively more challenging.”
Lawrence Hammer, MD, says the solution starts at the family dinner table, not necessarily in the schoolyard.
This means no more bribing your kids to eat their veggies at dinner. “Parents need to provide healthy options and offer healthy foods, but not push foods or use food as a reward to reinforce healthy eating,” says Hammer, a professor of pediatrics and medical director of the Pediatric Weight Clinic at the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Center for Healthy Weight in Stanford, Calif.
If kids have more control over their diet, they will learn to make better decisions over time.
Scott Kahan, MD, MPH, says the study should not be interpreted to say that some kids lack self-control. He is the director of the National Center for Weight and Wellness in Washington, D.C.
“The study should not be taken to say some children are bad and others are good based on their self-control,” he says. “All kids have different heights, weights, attention spans, and so forth.”
More structure may help fight childhood obesity, he says. “Lots of kids, particularly in our society, have fairly unstructured upbringings and that does often lead to difficulties with delayed gratification,” Kahan says.
Temptation abounds. “There is so much engineered, highly palatable, and highly sugary foods all around which make it much more difficult for kids to delay gratification," he says.