In reviews of the correlates of childhood obesity, discussions of the physical impacts and of the social and emotional impacts are often separate. But this distinction may be artificial. First, although the brain plays a central role in the regulation of energy balance and obesity (Schwartz et al., 2000), it is also the central organ for integrating social stimuli, regulating emotion, and executing social interaction. Not surprisingly, cues that affect both eating and activity behaviors are often social in nature, ranging from sadness to anxiety to boredom.
Social and emotional factors must therefore be recognized not only as potential consequences of obesity but also as potential causes. For example, depressed mood in children and adolescents may precede the development of obesity and not just follow it (Pine et al., 2001; Goodman and Whitaker,
2002; Richardson et al., 2003). In a nationally representative sample of 8-to 11-year-olds, clinically meaningful behavioral problems have been shown to be associated with the development of obesity over a 2-year period among children not obese at baseline (Lumeng et al., 2003). Affective factors, such as depressive symptoms, are also the likely mediators of the observed association between adult obesity and traumatic childhood experiences (e.g., physical abuse, sexual abuse) (Williamson et al., 2002).
There is accruing evidence that even the metabolic syndrome itself may be a consequence of how the brain processes environmental stimuli that are social in nature. For instance, the brain's response to stress may alter the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (or gonadal) axis in a way that promotes central fat deposition and insulin resistance in adults (Bjorntorp, 2001). Because children also experience stress, the part of the brain that regulates emotion may not only influence whether a child overeats, but also the metabolic consequences of that excess energy.
The fact that the physiologic response to stress is conditioned in childhood (Gunnar and Donzella, 2002) emphasizes the potential importance of optimizing the social and emotional health of children as a strategy for preventing obesity over a lifetime. Failure to recognize this connection between social or emotional health and physical health could result in prevention strategies that are poorly conceptualized, and underscores the need to consider the broadest possible definition of health to include the physical, mental, and emotional aspects (Table 2-1), because the foundations of all three develop during childhood and are interconnected.
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