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Gender Plays a Role in the Development of Obesity

Gender Plays a Role in the Development of Obesity

Written by Suchitra Chari, M.S. M.Sc.
Article Reviewed by 
The Medindia Medical Review Team on July 16, 2018 at 8:31 PM
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  • High self-regulation in toddler girls makes them more obese at age 5, whereas the same amount of self-regulation in boys makes them less obese at age 5.
  • Earlier studies have shown that there were lower rates of obesity seen in early adolescence as self-regulation increased.
  • The current research shows that increases in self-regulation are not optimal for everyone; the relationship differs based on whether they are boys or girls.

Self-regulation, i.e., the ability to change behavior in different social situations practiced in the toddler age could help predict whether the child will be obese in kindergarten or not, according to earlier studies. In other words, self-regulatory problems in early childhood are important longitudinal predictors of weight problems in early adolescence.

However, the current study from The Ohio State University found that more self-regulation may not necessarily mean a reduction in the risk of obesity, especially in girls.

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Gender Plays a Role in the Development of Obesity

The present study states that the connection between self-regulation and obesity appears to be much different for girls than for boys.

Girls who tested as having low or high self-regulation when they were 2 years old were more likely to turn out obese at age 5 than girls to tested to be of average self-regulation. On the other hand, boys with high self-regulation were less likely to be obese than the boys with low or average self-regulation.

The study is published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

Self-Regulation and its Connection to Overweight and Obesity

Self-regulation refers to the cognitive processes that govern drives and emotions; self-control which is an aspect of self-regulation is the ability to regulate one's emotions, urges and desires deliberately.

All children must develop self-regulation at a young age; and poorer self-control in childhood is associated with worse adult health, economic and social outcomes.

Studies on this subject have revealed that difficulties in self-regulation lead to the development of overweight and obesity, primarily via deregulated eating behavior.

One study indicates that if children have self-control, they are protected from weight gain in the transition to adolescence. Another study says that children with low self-regulation had significantly higher body mass index (BMI) and more rapid weight gain from age 3-12 than other children.

Self-regulation in children is promoted for a variety of desired outcomes, including obesity prevention and improved school readiness.

Does Gender Play a Role in the Development of Obesity?

  • The research team analyzed the data of 6,400 U.S. children, born in 2001, that came from the National Center for Education Statistics to determine
  • Whether the ability of a child to self-regulate at the age of 2 was associated with their risk of obesity in kindergarten
  • Any differences between genders
The traits used to measure self-regulation were a child's adaptability, persistence, attention, and frustration tolerance, conducted as a four-part in-home assessment.

The child could earn one point to five points on each measure, with a 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," said lead author Sarah Anderson, an associate professor in Ohio State's College of Public Health.

The height and weight of the children were measured, and obesity was defined as a body mass index greater than or equal to the 95th percentile.

Study Results and Interpretations

The results of the study turned out quite different from what the team expected.

To look at the data, the children were separated into quartiles ranging from "least regulated" to "most-regulated."
  • Toddler girls who were at the extremes of self-regulation (least and most) were more likely to be obese at kindergarten age than their female peers in the middle categories.
  • Only the most-regulated toddler boys turned out to be least likely to be obese, with little difference in the other groups.
  • There was no clear step-wise pattern to indicate that increased self-regulation meant decreased rates of obesity in either gender.
"We should not assume that interventions to increase self-regulation will necessarily lead to benefits for both genders - it may be different for boys and girls," Anderson said

The authors speculate that it's possible that girls and boys are reacting differently to social expectations which could play a role in childhood obesity.

Boys and girls may experience different stresses, and this might result in differences in energy balance and metabolism between girls and boys especially in the group observed to have high self-regulation. For example,
  • Boys might be less socially stressed in their environment, as more boys tend to be more OK with someone who gets easily frustrated and not paying attention, compared to girls.
  • Girls might be putting themselves under added stress in the interest of appeasing adults since they would like to be rewarded for "good" behavior, compared to boys.
  • Also, other factors like physiological differences and behavioral responses to demands in a child's environment may contribute to links between self-regulation and obesity, and these could affect appetite, food intake, sleep, and activity level.
"Obesity prevention is a complex and humbling task. Gender is another social influence that may affect the success of obesity prevention efforts," said Anderson's co-author, Robert Whitaker of Temple University.

Be Cautious of Self-regulation

  • More self-regulation may not always be a positive thing.
  • If people are looking at interventions to improve self-regulation in order to prevent childhood obesity, they should realize that it might not play out the same way for boys and girls; it could have an unintended impact for some girls.
  • People should be cautious about assuming that increases in self-regulation are optimal for everyone; young children are potentially responding differently to messages and expectations based on whether they are boys or girls.
References :
  1. Early Weight Gain in Pregnancy and Infant Birth Weight - (https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/article-abstract/2677895)
  2. Self-Regulation and the Management of Childhood Obesity - (https://www.omicsonline.org/selfregulation-and-the-management-of-childhood-obesity-2161-0711.1000107.php?aid=2820)

Source: Medindia

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