MEXICO CITY — Childhood obesity is linked to stress, but treatment strategies usually focus on diet and physical exercise. These strategies fail to address the mental health of the children. A new study from the Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social (IMSS) finds that combining mindfulness-based therapy with dieting will make obese children less stressed and hungry and also lose more weight than if they had only dieted.
Mindfulness is a psychological technique that uses attention and meditation to bring self-awareness. It has been shown to reduce stress associated with other diseases such as cancer, attention deficit disorder and anorexia. It has been proposed that mindfulness could help reduce body weight, but few studies have been performed in children to test this directly.
In this study, researchers tested if mindfulness helps obese and anxious kids lose more weight and lower their appetite and stress levels. They took 45 children and measured their baseline anxiety levels and body mass index (BMI) and then put children into one of two groups. The first group was placed on a calorie-restricted diet and the second group participated in mindfulness training for two hours a week for eight weeks in addition to dieting.
At the end of the intervention period the children were measured again for anxiety levels and BMI. Children in the calorie-restricted diet group lost some weight, but their anxiety levels went up. The children in the mindfulness group lost more weight and were also less anxious.
“Our results suggest that restricted diets may in fact increase anxiety in obese children. However, practicing mindfulness, as well dieting, may counteract this and promote more efficient weight loss,” comments Dr. Mardia López-Alarcón, the lead author of the study, in a release by the Society for Endocrinology.
These findings suggest that an effective treatment for childhood obesity must address the mental health of the children in addition to their weight. Only focusing on their weight might even make their anxiety levels go up.
“The potential counter effect anxiety may have on weight loss should be considered when children are undergoing dietary restriction. Our research supports the inclusion of mindfulness as a strategy to reduce anxiety and increase the chance of successful weight loss,” says López-Alarcón.
The researchers are going to confirm their findings by repeating the study in larger groups of children, but their results so far offer a promising treatment strategy for kids with childhood obesity.
The study is published in the journal Endocrine Connections.