Childhood Cumulative Risk and Obesity: The Mediating Role of Self-Regulatory Ability

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Claremont McKenna College, Psychology (CMC)

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Objectives: We tested whether early childhood risk exposures are related to weight gain in adolescence and evaluate an underlying mechanism, self-regulatory behavior, for the risk-obesity link.

Methods: Cumulative risk exposure to 9 sociodemographic (eg, poverty), physical (eg, substandard housing), and psychosocial (eg, family turmoil) stressors was assessed in 244 nine-year-old children. BMI was calculated at age 9 and then 4 years later. At age 9, children’s ability to delay gratification as an index of self-regulatory behavior was assessed. Path analyses were then estimated to evaluate our mediational model (Cumulative risk → Self-regulation → BMI) over a 4-year period in a prospective, longitudinal design.

Results: Nine-year-old children exposed to a greater accumulation of multiple risk factors show larger gains in adiposity over the next four year period, net of their initial BMI. These gains in BMI during early adolescence are largely accounted for by deteriorated self-regulatory abilities among children facing more cumulative risks.

Conclusions: Early childhood risk exposure leads to larger gains in BMI in adolescence. Given the importance of childhood adiposity to the development of obesity later in life, understanding the underlying mechanisms that link early experience to weight gain is an essential task. Deficiencies in self-regulation in response to chronic stress appears to be an important agent in the obesity epidemic.

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© 2012 by the American Academy of Pediatrics

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