Learn Willpower With a Sniff and a Nibble; How researchers are helping overweight kids train their brains to resist temptation

September 9, 2013, 7:18 p.m. ET

Overweight Kids Learn Willpower With a Sniff and a Nibble

How researchers are helping overweight kids train their brains to resist temptation


A recent research program is testing an intriguing hypothesis: Can overweight children be taught to eat less by putting their favorite dishes right in front of them?

Kerri Boutelle, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at University of California, San Diego’s School of Medicine, calls her willpower-enhancing technique “cue exposure.” The aim is to train the brain of overweight and obese children to reduce the desire to eat when they’re not actually hungry. And since many impulses to eat come from triggers in our environment, such as getting an urge to snack while watching TV, interrupting such automatic responses can help children cut down on mindless eating.Dr. Boutelle, working with children between the ages of 8 and 12, recently completed a four-month study with 40 obese kids and conducted an earlier eight-week study involving 36 overweight children. The results: Children seem capable of learning to subdue their food cravings, but it isn’t clear how long the willpower lasts after the experiments are over.

In the studies, the participants are given a favorite food, such as a brownie, and told to rate their craving on a scale of 1 to 5—1 means “I can resist this,” and 5 is “I’m dying for it,” Dr. Boutelle says. The children are instructed to put the brownie down, wait 30 seconds and rate their cravings again. Another rating is recorded after the participants sniff the brownie, then again after taking a small bite and later after staring at it for five minutes. Finally, Dr. Boutelle directs the children to throw the brownie away.

“We are teaching kids to tolerate their cravings and not eat when they’re not physically hungry,” she says.

Heidi Bridges, who says her whole family struggles with weight, signed up one of her three sons for the recent program after hearing about Dr. Boutelle’s work from the children’s pediatrician. The boy, an eighth-grader who plays baseball, was exposed over the course of four visits to his “absolute favorite foods,” including french fries, Oreo ice cream, Sour Patch Kids and Doritos, says Ms. Bridges, a high-school biology teacher in San Diego.

At one of the visits, Dr. Boutelle brought out a piece of cheesecake. “He was so excited he was almost rocking back and forth,” Ms. Bridges says, and he rated his desire a 5—the highest level. But after going through the step-by-step cue exposure, his numbers declined to 1 or 2 on the craving scale. “It was stunning when he finally said, ‘Oh, I don’t need it,’ ” she says. “When you bring out cheesecake at our house, it doesn’t matter if you’ve just eaten the largest meal. We’re all having some.”

Dr. Boutelle says much existing weight-loss advice directs children to steer clear of high-calorie and unhealthy food. With her research, she is trying to train the parts of their young brains associated with inhibition to resist temptation when they are inclined to respond emotionally to food cues. Her earlier study was published in 2011 in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology; the latest research is being reviewed for publication, she says.

Training children to resist food cravings is only useful if the behavior continues after they leave the supervised setting of the laboratory. After her 2011 study, which lasted eight weeks, Dr. Boutelle tracked the subjects for a year and found that the children sustained more regulated eating for about six months on average. She says she is currently enrolling participants for a larger study of 120 children to determine how long cue-exposure treatment should last to achieve long-term results. The new study is being funded by the National Institutes of Health, she says.

Eric Stice, a senior scientist at Oregon Research Institute, a nonprofit that carries out behavioral and biological research, says even though it may not be possible to expect kids to swear off tempting foods for good, learning to manage cravings may be useful in controlling food portions. Dr. Stice, who studies obesity prevention and isn’t involved in Dr. Boutelle’s work, says research has consistently shown that obese people are neurologically more responsive to food and images of food than are normal-weight people. “At the end of the day, if we can get people to be more immune to food cues, it would make it much easier to eat healthier and exercise more,” Dr. Stice says.

Ms. Bridges, the San Diego mom, says she didn’t specifically enroll her son in Dr. Boutelle’s research as a way to lose weight, but as a means to better understand what was driving him to eat more than most of his friends. “My husband and I are overweight and our kids are overweight and we decided it was time to teach them to be better eaters,” she says.

Since the study ended in February, Ms. Bridges says her son, who is 13, hasn’t put on any additional pounds even while growing taller, which she considers a success. And he is now more often able to resist food cravings. Recently he steered clear of a box of See’s candies, despite telling his brother that he was feeling tempted, she says. Ms. Bridges’ youngest son, who is 11, participated in another of Dr. Boutelle’s programs, in which he learned about nutrition and healthy eating.

Portion sizes at the Bridges house are now smaller than before, and the family is making different choices about what to stock in the kitchen pantry—Doritos are out, for example, Ms. Bridges says. “In our family, the question, ‘Are you still hungry?’ has changed to, ‘Are you stomach-hungry or head-hungry?’ ” she says.

“I am adamant about them not getting obsessed with their weight,” Ms. Bridges says of her family. “I just want to give them the skills to eat healthier and make informed choices.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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