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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Research Project: Linking Foods, Behavior and Metabolism to Promote a Healthy Body Weight

Location: Obesity and Metabolism Research Unit

Title: Preschool children with lower executive function may be more vulnerable to emotional-based eating in the absence of hunger

Authors
item Pieper, Joy -
item Laugero, Kevin

Submitted to: Appetite
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: November 26, 2012
Publication Date: December 2, 2012
Citation: Pieper, J.R., Laugero, K.D. 2012. Preschool children with lower executive function may be more vulnerable to emotional-based eating in the absence of hunger. Appetite. 62:103-l09.

Interpretive Summary: Childhood obesity rates have tripled in the last thirty years, and experts agree that interventions should be multi-faceted and come early. Since eating behaviors established early in life can persist into adolescence and adulthood, it is critical to better understand the factors that contribute to these behaviors in young children. Some researchers have suggested that deficits in executive function or conditions (e.g. stress) that may impair executive function may contribute to obesity through a compromised ability to overcome emotional over-eating. For example, persons with poor executive function may be less able to resist emotional- or stress-related overconsumption of highly palatable foods. Executive function is a type of cognitive function that is goal-oriented and related to decision-making. Examples of executive function include the ability to regulate impulsive behaviors and shift attention. This study of preschool children demonstrated that increased emotional arousal was related to increased eating sweet snacks in the absence of being hungry in children who performed more poorly on the executive function task, delay of gratification. Results suggest that some children, such as those with less impulse control, are susceptible to emotional eating even in the absence of being hungry. Further studies are warranted to assess whether interventions to improve executive function and emotional regulation in young children may also have the benefit of improving eating behaviors and decreasing risk of obesity later in life.

Technical Abstract: Decreased executive function has been linked to unhealthy eating behaviors and obesity in older children and adults, however little is known about this relationship in young children. A pilot project in a research-based preschool was conducted to examine the relationships between executive function, emotional arousal and eating in the absence of hunger (EAH) in three to six year-old children. Mood, temperament, and parenting practices were also considered. Executive function was measured through child-completed tasks, parent questionnaires, and standardized teacher reports. Emotional arousal was measured via skin conductance. Children who had lower cognitive development scores as indicated by teacher reports had higher EAH. Increased emotional arousal was associated with increased EAH in children who were not happy upon arrival at school, had low scores for the temperament trait of high intensity pleasure, low scores for an affective executive function task (delay of gratification), low cognitive development scores from the teachers, low effortful control as indicated by parents, and high parental use of restriction for health. Further studies are necessary to determine whether interventions to improve executive function and emotional regulation in young children may also have the benefit of improving eating behaviors and decreasing risk of obesity in the long run.

Last Modified: 4/23/2014
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