Children With Low Self-Control Likely To Become Overweight

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture
Children With Low Self-Control Likely To Become Overweight

Does your child have a harder than normal time resisting temptation? Whether it’s with toys or food, that inability to wait can lead to weight gain as they reach their pre-teen years.

Young children who display an inability to delay gratification appear predisposed to be over-weight by their pre-teen years, according to University of Michigan researchers.

In a University of Michigan study that is one of two reports appearing in the April issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association's Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, researchers used a waiting task to gauge 4-year-olds' ability to delay gratification.

The children were asked to choose candy, animal crackers or pretzels as their preferred food and left alone with two plates of different quantities of the food.

Children were told that they would be allowed to eat a larger quantity of the chosen food if they waited until the examiner returned. If they could not wait until the examiner returned, they could ring a bell to summon the examiner back into the room, at which time they could eat the small quantity.

Of the 805 children who participated, 47 percent failed the test, either by ringing the bell before a seven-minute waiting period elapsed, spontaneously beginning to eat the food, becoming distressed, going to the door or calling for a parent or the examiner.

Those who displayed a limited ability to delay gratification were 29 percent more likely to be overweight at age 11 than those who could delay gratification, says Julie Lumeng, M.D., a developmental and behavioral pediatrician with the University of Michigan Health System and one of the study’s authors.

The study tried to control for effects of parenting by asking mothers if they expected their children to delay gratification for food, for example, by not allowing the child to snack whenever he or she wants to. Researchers found no impact of the mother’s answer on the relationship between the child’s ability to delay gratification and risk of becoming overweight.

“Even when the mom said she expects the child to be able wait in their daily life at home, if the child was unable to wait, they were more likely to become overweight,” Lumeng says.

The association was partially explained by mothers’ weight status. The influence of maternal weight status on child weight reflects genetic as well as environmental factors, and both factors are possible explanations for this finding.

The weight of the mother made a difference in the child’s ability to wait to eat, Lumeng adds.


“Moms who are overweight themselves have kids that are less able to wait,” Lumeng says. “No study like this one can prove causation, but there's an association.”

This study suggests that if parents want to reduce the risk of obesity in their children, they should teach the child to delay gratification and model the behavior themselves, Lumeng says.

Parenting techniques may help children develop an ability to delay gratification, the authors say. Some strategies that have been described in prior studies have been keeping the desired item - in this case, food - out of sight, and therefore out of mind, or distracting the child’s attention from the food to another engaging activity.

Another possibility is simply providing a logical structure to snacks and mealtimes so that the child learns that food should not be eaten the moment it is desired, but waiting until the next snack or meal time, the authors write.

The U-M study that appears in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine is one of several on the subject in this month's edition.

In a Pennsylvania State University study, 3-year-old children participated in a self-control assessment that involved sitting alone in a room with a toy for 150 seconds. Those who waited at least 75 seconds to play with the toy were classified as high in self-regulation. At age 5, the children participated in an exercise in delayed gratification that involved choosing a smaller portion of a favorite food immediately or a larger portion several minutes later.

Children who were unable to regulate their behavior at both ages had the highest body mass index (BMI) scores for their age at 12 years and the most rapid increases in BMI over the nine-year follow-up.

Pediatricians could use this knowledge to educate children and their parents about the importance of learning to delay gratification, Lumeng says.

How to help children who have trouble waiting:

* If the child is constantly asking for the cookies on the counter, put them away - "out of sight, out of mind."

* Draw the child’s attention to other activities if it’s not time to eat.

* Have a structure to meals and snacks. If snack time is at 3:30 p.m. and the child is unlikely to be actually very hungry, teach the child to wait a bit.

* Some kids, no matter what a parent does, may have a hard time delaying gratification. Keeping tempting foods out of the house altogether may be the best solution for some families.