NEW US research has found that a toddler's self regulation, which is their ability to change behaviour in different social situations, could predict whether they will be obese by the time they enter kindergarten. However, self-regulation may also have a different effect on girls than boys.
Carried out by researchers at The Ohio State University, the study analysed data from 6,400 US children to see whether a child's ability to self-regulate when they were two years old was linked with their risk of obesity at age five.
Self-regulation was measured in the children's home using an assessment which gave points based on their adaptability, persistence, attention and frustration tolerance.
Each child received from one point to five points on each measure, with the total possible score of 20 indicating a very high level of self-regulation.
“Observers were looking at things like how readily a child gave up a block when an adult said it was time to play with something else, how difficult it was to hold their attention and how easily frustrated they became when things weren't going their way,” explained co-author Sarah Anderson.
The researchers also looked at any differences between genders in their ability to self-regulate.
They found that girls who scored at either the low or the high end on measures of self-regulation when they were two years old were more likely than girls with average self-regulation to be obese at age five.
However, boys who scored on the high end of self-regulation were less likely to be obese by age five than boys with low or average self-regulation.
Anderson commented that the difference found between boys and girls raises important new questions about the role of gender in the development of childhood obesity and adds to previous obesity research which has also found differences between genders.
“People are trying ways to prevent obesity in young children, and some of those approaches involve improving self-regulation. Our study suggests that could have an unintended impact for some girls,” Anderson said.
“All we can do based on this research is speculate, but it's possible that girls and boys are reacting differently to social expectations and that could play a role in childhood obesity,” she continued. “If you're a boy and if the people around you are more OK with you getting easily frustrated and not paying attention, the social stress from your environment may be less than it is for a girl.”
“These stresses might result in differences in energy balance and metabolism between girls and boys, especially in the group observed to have high self-regulation.”
The results can be found published online in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.