By Heather Hamilton, PhD., LMHC, NCC, DCC | ©2022BreakThrough!
Preventing childhood obesity begins before birth. In utero, a mother’s diet during pregnancy influences a child’s preferences, metabolism, and developmental features. These influences develop the central reward processes in the brain and can lead to a lifelong preference for fatty and/or sugary foods .
Food & Emotional Connections
At birth when we’re suddenly exposed to new sensations almost immediately someone puts something in our mouth, a breast, bottle, (or finger) to pacify and nourish us.Over the next few weeks, the emotional connections (and attachments) between unpleasant sensations, our cries of displeasure, and the comfort provided by oral soothing are reinforced for life!
Later as we start to crawl, we learn that having something in our mouth provides comfort when we’re afraid, hurt, or tired. As our curiosity emerges we discover that oral stimulation not only provides relief from frustration but at times, boredom. Yes, boredom…why the heck else would we stick our toes (or everything else) in our mouth?
For many of us, having something in our mouth (whether it takes the form of a thumb or lollipop) becomes our primary “go-to” behavior that provides relief from unpleasant experiences, emotions, or sensations. We can’t talk about what we want, so an oral reward becomes a default means to satisfy other unmet needs. When we think about early childhood development from this perspective, it’s not surprising that as we mature, we continue to turn to food or other oral stimulation (such as smoking, vaping, or chewing gum) to relieve (dis)stress.
Key concepts that help prevent Childhood Obesity
Three key concepts help prevent the onset of obesity in children
1. Delay of Gratification
From the perspective of eating and early development, delay of gratification begins with parental influences. Barring any health issues, this requires a transition from on-demand nursing to robust yet less frequent feedings. Instead of satisfying every fussy sound with a nipple, we engage in other behaviors such as distraction with objects, interactions, or activities. Delay of gratification teaches elements of patience. Importantly it lays the foundation for the development of trust. The infant may have to wait to eat, but they learn to trust they’ll be fed and that the experience will be satisfying. Delay of gratification can positively influence self-reliance with regard to meeting needs unrelated to comfort and set the course for learning emotional self-regulation.
Delay of gratification is key to self-regulation. When parents regulate feeding times and control portion size then self-regulated eating behavior and learning can develop. As infants, we’ll eat what we need to have enough energy to make it to the next feeding. If we don’t eat enough; we become hungry and irritable. If we eat too much, or too quickly, we’ll spit up (as well as become hungry and irritable).
Exposure to different environments is important during this period as this encourages the development of tolerance, and more importantly, resilience. Increased tolerance results in less dramatic responses to routine sensory inputs. Increased resilience is shown to reduce the incidence and magnitude of depressive disorders.
In an era of social media influences that glorify excess, it’s difficult to appreciate the concept of “enough”. We know that to manage our weight we generally have to limit quantities and focus on quality. This runs counter to the culture of fast food and nutritionally deficient super-sized meals. If we don’t set healthy limits for children early on, we can’t expect self-regulation to develop. Think about how many children scream in protest when a parent takes away an Ipad or other electronic device. If children don’t learn “enough” as it relates to food; it’s unlikely to be present in any other circumstances when they want some form of stimulation or reward.
From a global perspective, most cultures embrace the notion that good behavior or the achievement of goals should be rewarded with treats. For many, this might involve a trip to get ice cream, candy, or fast food. From a learning perspective, this introduces the concept of secondary reward reinforcement. We don’t just eat sugar or high-fat foods when we’re low on energy or unhappy, we also consume them as a celebration when things are going well. We’ve accepted the premise that even when we feel happy we can (or should) do something that will make us feel even better. It’s this mood-altering drive that can ultimately lead to maladaptive use, dependence, and addiction to food.
Now, Let’s BreakThrough!
Switching gears to the program. If we weren’t taught these concepts early in life, we’re likely facing the challenge of retraining our brains. Here’s a brief approach to working through the 4Rs:
RECOGNITION: We learn what’s good for us
RESISTANCE: We develop resistance by consistently regulating portion sizes
RESILIENCE: As we lose weight we learn that we’re happy with “enough”
RECOVERY: We only purchase “enough”
We hope you have enjoyed this article from The BreakThrough! Program.
References & Related Topics
Anderson, S. E., & Keim, S. A. (2016). Parent-Child Interaction, Self-Regulation, and Obesity Prevention in Early Childhood. Current obesity reports, 5(2), 192–200. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13679-016-0208-9