Texas A&M Pair Seeks To Identify Key Factors In Childhood Obesity, Interventions

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COLLEGE STATION, July 29, 2010 - Two Texas A&M University researchers are trying to understand factors that contribute to young children's emotional eating and later obesity or eating disorders - and also determine some effective interventions that parents can use to foster healthy eating habits.

The research merges the fields of emotional regulation and eating regulation, which are specialties of Jeffrey Liew, an assistant professor and developmental psychologist who leads a child development lab through Texas A&M's College of Education and Human Development, and Marisol Perez, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor who specializes and leads a research team on eating disorders and obesity.

The research, funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, is innovative in its combination of research regarding child development, emotional eating and obesity that leads to the theory that problems with emotion regulation predisposes children to emotional eating (i.e., the tendency to eat when not hungry to cope with stress or negative emotions), which can then predispose them to become overweight.

"By combining the parenting and developmental aspects of eating, we hope to develop a cost-effective program for parents to teach their children to better regulate their emotions and not use food as a coping mechanism," Perez explains.

The two-year study involves conducting laboratory sessions with up to 250 children - half white, half non-white. "Developmental research tells us that obese children generally do not grow out of their obesity when they become adolescents, and there are ethnic and racial disparities that contribute to this condition with higher incidences of overweight children among Hispanics than Caucasians," Liew says.

The Texas A&M research might aid in designing obesity prevention programs that are sensitive and responsive to the needs of Hispanic children, he says. "It goes beyond identifying risk or protective factors for emotional eating and addresses why there are cross-cultural differences in the prevalence of childhood obesity," Liew says.

During visits to the lab, the youngsters will be assessed on how they perform in several tasks that elicit a variety of emotions mimicking children's everyday experiences while they are connected to physiological equipment that monitors their ECG and breathing. Then, the children will participate in a task designed to observe not only how much they eat but what types of foods they eat. Their parents will be asked to complete several questionnaires about their child's behavior and moods and also their parenting styles. The children will be observed for clues about their temperaments and emotion regulation with regard to food. They will essentially be given free rein among several high-energy-dense food choices, then observed.

Liew and Perez say they hope their study results will allow them to understand the mechanisms underlying childhood emotional eating so they could then develop a cost-effective and successful program that can be taught to parents and teachers.

"We are interested in developing tools for parents on how to better teach their children to regulate their emotions and also to not emotionally eat," Perez says. "If effective, the program could reduce or prevent childhood obesity."