Mindfulness therapy involves observing thoughts and feelings from a distance while living in the moment. Doing so can help curb rates of obesity in children, researchers from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine recently found. In their new study, published in Heliyon, they outline the effect of mindfulness on not only a child's mind but their dietary habits too.

"We know the brain plays a big role in obesity in adults, but what we understand about the neurological connections associated with obesity might not apply to children," said the study’s lead author BettyAnn Chodkowski, a researcher from the School of Medicine, in a press release. "We wanted to look at the way children's brains function in more detail so we can better understand what is happening neurologically in children who are obese."

Researchers recruited 38 children between the ages of 8 and 13 — five were obese, six were overweight, and the rest were within a normal, healthy weight range. Each child's weight was recorded, along with their answers from an eating behavior questionnaire. Next, researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to reveal activity in three different regions of the brain suspected to be associated with weight and eating habits: the inferior parietal lobe (associated with inhibition), the frontal pole (associated with impulsivity), and the nucleus accumbens (associated with reward).

It turned out children who were either overweight or obese had stronger connections in the frontal pole, suggesting they were more susceptible to impulsiveness. Children who actively avoided excess calories, meanwhile, had stronger connections in the inferior parietal lobe, which therefore allowed them to inhibit their hunger cravings.

Mindfulness-based interventions, by helping a child be aware of their current situation, help them gain insight into the state of their dietary patterns. Being mindful breeds resilience in the brain, which is essential to sticking to a diet regimen or abstaining from unhealthy temptations. Constantly being aware of your thoughts and actions consequently reinforces patterns in the brain and lays the foundation for healthier eating habits.

"We think mindfulness could recalibrate the imbalance in the brain connections associated with childhood obesity," said the study’s senior author Dr. Ronald Cowan, a psychiatry professor from the School of Medicine, in the press release. "Mindfulness has produced mixed results in adults, but so far there have been few studies showing its effectiveness for weight loss in children."

Mindfulness-based interventions have increasingly been utilized to target eating behaviors — one recent study, for example, found adults with low levels of mindfulness were more likely to be obese and have unhealthy levels of abdominal fat. However, because it’s a fairly new area of research, most studies have only focused on mindfulness’ effect on adults.

"Adults, and especially children, are primed towards eating more," said the study’s senior author Dr. Kevin Niswender, a professor of medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, in the press release. "This is great from an evolutionary perspective — they need food to grow and survive. But in today's world, full of readily available, highly advertised, energy dense foods, it is putting children at risk of obesity."

Source: Chodkowski B, Niswender K, and Cowan R, et al. Imbalance in Resting State Functional Connectivity is Associated with Eating Behaviors and Adiposity in Children. Heliyon. 2016.