It’s a stark reminder of how behaviors acquired early in our lives can have lasting effects. A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics by Andrea Goldschmidt, PhD, director of the Eating Disorders Program, and colleagues, finds that impulsivity and poor planning behaviors in young girls can lead to greater weight gain as they get older—and that binge eating, in part, may explain why. ScienceLife spoke with Goldschmidt about the study.
ScienceLife: How did you get started on this study what prompted it?
Andrea Goldschmidt: I’ve been interested in the relationship between executive functioning and binge eating in overweight children for a long time. Kate Keenan (professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience), who is senior author on the paper, collaborates on a longitudinal dataset that happened to have measures of all the things I was interested in looking at—executive functioning, repeated measurements of binge eating, and BMI. It was ideally suited to answering the question that I was interested in.
What is binge eating?
Binge eating typically describes behavior where a person eats an objectively large amount of food, and the person feels out of control while they’re doing so—like they can’t stop or limit how much they’re eating. We found that it’s pretty consistent over a range of ages. About 10 to 15 percent of kids report binge eating behaviors. It’s one of the most common eating disorder behaviors, and presents more frequently in overweight kids.
What is executive functioning?
It’s described as any goal-oriented cognitive or behavioral activity. So things such as planning, inhibition and set shifting, which is being able to switch from one task to another. Executive functioning is a spectrum, and individuals with impairments that reach certain points or cutoffs would start meeting criteria for ADHD or other impulse control disorders.
How does this relate to weight gain?
If your goal is to maintain a healthy weight, you need to make a lot of decisions, such as what to eat and when to eat. You need to inhibit some behaviors: for example, not going out to buy a snack if you see a commercial on TV for that snack. There are a lot of domains within executive functioning, but they’re ultimately the things we do to meet a goal—to keep ourselves healthy in the future in favor of the things we do now that taste or feel really good.
Poorer functioning in these domains is associated with elevated weight status. There’s also been links between poor executive function and binge eating, but nothing that has linked all three together. So it seemed like a natural fit to study the relationship between these three constructs.
So what did you find?
We found that poorer planning and greater impulsivity predicts greater weight gain, and that relationship partially operates through binge eating. Poor impulsivity at age 10 predicts greater binge eating at age 12 which then predicts greater weight gain through age 16.
What was your study population like?
We looked at 2,450 girls from ages 10 to 16, who are part of the Pittsburgh Girls Study. It is a large, very ethnically and socioeconomically diverse sample. Because it’s a longitudinal study, they’re assessed every year on a variety of factors such as weight and height, as well as questionnaires that address things such as executive functioning.
Does your work affect how you look at your own children?
As a parent of two young boys, being in this research area makes me so aware of their eating behavior. In some ways it’s more of a curse than a blessing, because I think about all the research that’s been done and I question if I’m doing the right thing as a parent. I want my kids to be at a healthy weight, but I don’t want to restrict them and cause them to problematic attitudes towards food.
What would you want other parents to be aware of regarding your study, and others like it?
How important it is to help kids develop healthy and moderate eating behaviors early in life, in order to set them up for healthy bodyweight as adults. If your children are showing signs that they might have more difficulties than other children their age in areas like impulsivity, planning or eating behaviors, it’s not something you should wait out. It’s not something to get frantic over either, but talk to your doctor and see where they fall on the spectrum, and intervene early.
You want to set children up for healthy habits, because childhood obesity is one of the strongest predictors of adult obesity. If we can catch kids early, we can try to prevent a lot of the comorbidities that adult obesity is associated with. Be aware of what your kids are doing. If you think they’re struggling in certain areas, don’t hesitate to bring it up with your doctor.