Children who are overweight aren’t necessarily more interested in food than their slimmer peers, but past research shows they are typically less interested than peers in non-food activities, like sports or imaginative play.
To find out which of these activities children find more appealing than eating, University at Buffalo obesity researchers are starting a new study, funded by a $2.8 million National Institutes of Health grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
“The goal is to identify whether motivation for non-food alternatives protects against weight gain over time,” said Katelyn Carr, PhD, postdoctoral researcher in the Behavioral Medicine Laboratory of the UB Department of Pediatrics, Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
“We want to find out whether a child’s motivation to participate in what we call a non-food alternative, whether it be practicing a musical instrument, doing homework or playing with a friend, will compete with their motivation to eat,” she said.
If it does, then one way to prevent childhood obesity would be to make more of those activities more readily available to children.
“Our thought is, if children only have food in their environments, then eating is what they’ll do. But if other enjoyable activities are available, even if they’re already motivated to eat, will they choose to do those other things?”
She noted that television-watching, technically a non-food activity, is considered a complement, not an alternative, to eating.
Carr is study coordinator on the grant led by SUNY Distinguished Professor Leonard Epstein, PhD, Division Chief of Behavioral Medicine in the Department of Pediatrics at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and an internationally recognized expert on childhood weight control and family intervention.
According to Carr, past research has found that the more alternatives individuals have in their environment, the less likely they are to use, or abuse, substances, whether it’s food, cigarettes or drugs. It is also known that there are usually fewer non-food alternatives in homes and communities at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. For that reason, this study will also examine the availability of non-food alternatives in relation to socioeconomic status.
UB researchers are interested in recruiting approximately 300 Western New York children, ages 6 to 9; families will earn gift cards upon study completion. To participate, please contact Kendra O’Connor at 716-829-5142.
The researchers will initially visit each child at home to see what kinds of foods and activities are available to them. With the help of their parents, the children will fill out questionnaires about activities they like to participate in.
Over the next two years, each child will then make three visits to the Behavioral Medicine Laboratory on the UB South Campus, where they will play computer games to earn points. This activity will tell the researchers how much work the child is motivated to do for food, known as food-reinforcement, versus how much they are motivated to work for a specific activity.
Once they have earned a sufficient number of points, they will then be able to snack or participate in a non-food activity that is either social; formal or informal sports activity; self-improvement, such as homework; or cognitively enriching, such as writing a story or engaging in imaginative play.
The researchers are interested in finding out which non-food activities are more likely to be selected by children who do not gain weight. The next potential step, Carr explained, would be to add an intervention.
“As anyone who has been on a diet knows, it’s really difficult to restrict food intake,” said Carr. “We want to know if just by adding new activities into a child’s environment, is it possible to prevent overeating?”