Connecting Overeating, Emotions and Cognitive Control in Young Children

For the first time, a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) researcher has found a relationship between cognitive control and emotional eating behavior in preschool children.

Nutritionist Kevin Laugero, at Agricultural Research Service‘s (ARS) Western Human Nutrition Research Center in Davis, California, found that cognitive control—which includes abilities to make decisions, plan, manage time, and maintain emotional and self-control—is significantly associated with the relationship between overeating and emotions. ARS is USDA’s principal intramural scientific research agency.

According to Laugero, who studies how stress and emotions shape behavior patterns in people, other research has shown a link between unhealthy eating behaviors, obesity and decreased mental skills in adults. However, not much is known about this connection in younger children.

Working with researchers at the University of California, Davis (UCD), ARS scientists examined the balance between emotional state, snacking and cognitive control in children ages 3 to 6 at a preschool on the UCD campus. They used computerized and hands-on tasks, parent questionnaires and standardized teacher reports to measure cognitive control and assign a cognitive control score.

They also examined the children’s emotions as a potential factor for overeating.

In the experiment, children who indicated they were full after eating were instructed to color and were seated at a table that had snacks on it. The more emotions experienced by children with lower cognitive control scores, the more snacks they ate. Children with higher cognitive control scores did not engage in this type of behavior.

Results, which were published in Appetite, indicate that young children with lower cognitive control skills may be more likely to overeat when experiencing heightened emotions, while children with higher cognitive control skills are less likely to overeat.

The research suggests that preschool age may be a good time for anti-obesity intervention, because eating habits and cognitive control are both developing rapidly, according to Laugero. New or existing intervention strategies aimed at improving cognitive control may have the potential to limit emotional eating and promote healthier eating habits later in life.

Read more about this work in the November issue of AgResearch.

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