An important question, then, is whether this damage can
be reversed. To find out, scientists are examining behavioral
interventions, such as training children to overcome impulsive
eating behaviors. For example, Liang and her mentor Kerri
Boutelle, PhD, of UCSD are developing computer-based
programs in which children see pictures of both highly
palatable foods — rich in sugar, fat and salt — and non-food
items, and are asked to inhibit their responses to the pictures of
food by pressing a “no” key to indicate they would like to avoid
it. Studies suggest that practicing inhibition can strengthen
the ability to resist unhealthy foods. Adults in a U.K. study on
inhibition training showed significant weight loss compared
with controls (Appetite, 2015).
Family-based cognitive behavioral programs can also
be effective. Parents can best help their children avoid poor
food choices when they are warmly supportive versus being
too controlling or using shame or guilt tactics, which Liang’s
research shows can lead to an obese child eating more candy
“Parents need to act as the child’s frontal lobe until it
develops — praising them for making the right choices, using
portion control, and changing the food environment so there
are fewer temptations around,” Liang says.
Teaching mindfulness practices to children may also
help prevent obesity, according to Vanderbilt University
researchers. In a study of 38 children
who had MRI scans, the scientists
found that the heavier children who
ate more had stronger connectivity
among brain areas related to being
impulsive, while those who ate less
had greater connectivity in areas that
promote inhibition. Teaching children
mindfulness practices, which research
suggests reduces impulsive behavior,
might help children maintain a healthy
weight (Heliyon, 2016).
Research also suggests that exercise,
especially aerobic fitness, may help
improve executive function in overweight
children. A study of 55 overweight
children in a rigorous six-week daily
exercise program found that they had
better emotional control and visuospatial
performance than overweight children
who exercised only once a week (Obesity,
Still, building these interventions
into children’s lives is a challenge, says
Davidson. “It may not be any easier to get
kids to exercise than it is to get them to
stop eating ice cream. ... We have to make
it easier to do.” n
• Davidson, T. L. (2014). Do impaired memory and
body weight regulation originate in childhood with
diet-induced hippocampal dysfunction? The American
Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 99( 5), 971–972. http://doi.
• Davidson, T. L., Hargrave, S. L., Swithers, S. E.,
Sample, C. H., Fu, X., Kinzig, K. P., & Zheng, W. (2013).
Inter-relationships among diet, obesity and hippocampal-dependent dognitive function. Neuroscience, 253, 110–122.
• Hsu, T. M., & Kanoski, S. E. (2014). Blood-brain barrier disruption: Mechanistic links between
Western diet consumption and dementia. Frontiers
in Aging Neuroscience, 6, 88. http://doi.org/10.3389/
• Liang, J., Matheson, B., Kaye, W., & Boutelle, K.
(2014). Neurocognitive correlates of obesity and obesity-related behaviors in children and adolescents. International
Journal of Obesity, 38( 4), 494–506. http://doi.org/10.1038/
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