Mindfulness helps address childhood obesity, anxiety


Mindfulness-based therapy may help reduce stress, appetite, and body weight in children with obesity and anxiety, according to a new study published in the journal Endocrine Connections.

For the study, researchers led by Mardia López-Alarcón, MD, PhD, investigated the effect of mindfulness-based therapy on stress, appetite, and body weight of children with obesity and anxiety. Children selected for the study completed a self-report questionnaire to measure levels of anxiety and their body mass index was recorded.

A group of 33 children were taught mindfulness skills in two-hour guided sessions, once a week, for eight weeks, alongside a typical calorie-restricted diet. Another group of 12 children completed an eight-week calorie-restricted diet only. The combined therapy led to significantly greater reductions in weight, anxiety, and the levels of two hormones related to stress and appetite, cortisol and ghrelin.

An increase in anxiety and a smaller weight reduction was observed in the group on a calorie-restricted diet alone, the researchers said.

Childhood obesity increases the risk of a number of detrimental medical conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes, and can also be associated with stress and anxiety. Despite this common association, most treatment strategies do not address psychological factors and focus solely on diet and exercise. Previous studies suggest many eating disorders associated with obesity, such as binge eating, can be driven by elevated stress levels that make it more difficult to stick to dietary regimes.

Mindfulness is a psychological technique that uses meditation to increase personal awareness, and has successfully helped reduce stress associated with other diseases, such as cancer and anorexia nervosa.

These findings provide evidence that mindfulness may have potential for managing anxiety and weight in obese children on calorie-restricted diets by reducing appetite and stress hormones. The increased levels of anxiety observed in the calorie-restricted only group, suggest that current weight loss strategies should consider psychological factors, as well as physical and lifestyle factors, to achieve better results. 

“The potential counter effect anxiety may have on weight loss should be considered when children are undergoing dietary restriction,” said López-Alarcón in a statement. “Our research supports the inclusion of mindfulness as a strategy to reduce anxiety and increase the chance of successful weight loss."