Being overweight is often linked to negatives in children’s physical health but how about to their cognitive health? A study published in PloS One suggests a link between excess weight in preschool children and declined executive functioning.
Overweight and obesity in children has become increasingly prevalent and problematic worldwide in the recent past. Though obesity is thought of commonly as simply being overweight due to poor nutrition and lack of exercise, it is a bit more complex than that. Obesity involves the entire body and can be affected by genetics, environment, and the way these two interact.
Risk factors for childhood obesity can include preterm birth and low birth weight. Cognitive factors, such as executive functioning, have been thought to be related to excess weight by affecting the mental control around healthy habits. A relationship between excess weight and executive functioning impairments has been shown in school-aged children, adolescents, and adults, but there is a gap in literature around preschool aged children, which this study seeks to address.
For their study, Narueporn Likhitweerawong and colleagues utilized 1,181 preschoolers aged 2 to 5 from seven private and public schools in Thailand to serve as their sample. Data was collected in 2021. Schools chosen represented predominantly middle-class socioeconomic status. Children who were underweight or diagnosed with neurodevelopmental or genetic disorders were excluded. Measures included an executive functioning inventory filled out by the participants’ parents, weight status, and pre-specified confounders, such as age, birth weight, breastfeeding status, sex, and more.
Results showed that children who had impaired executive functioning were more likely to be overweight. In particular, impaired inhibition and decreased working memory capacity were both significantly correlated with being overweight for preschoolers in this study.
Differences emerged between overweight and obese preschoolers. For obese preschoolers, the relationship between weight and working memory was significant, but overall executive functioning and impaired inhibition were not significant. Other executive functioning subscales, such as shifting and planning, did not have any significant relationship with weight excess.
This study took important steps into better understanding the relationship between increased weight and executive functioning. Despite this, there are limitations to note. One such limitation is that the cross-sectional nature of the research means causation cannot be inferred. Additionally, BMI is not the most reliable measure of obesity; future research could focus on body fat instead.
“Strategies directly targeting the promotion of [executive functioning], specifically inhibition and working memory, in early childhood might help young children maintain a healthy weight throughout their developmental period. However, longitudinal studies are needed to investigate further the causal effect between [executive functioning] and weight excess, and the treatment effect of [executive functioning] intervention on weight outcomes,” the researchers concluded.
The study, “Association between executive function and excess weight in pre-school children“, was authored by Narueporn Likhitweerawong, Jiraporn Khorana, Nonglak Boonchooduang, Phichayut Phinyo, Jayanton Patumanond, and Orawan Louthrenoo.