Postdoctoral researcher Katelyn Carr, PhD, is coordinating a clinical study aimed at determining if offering non-food alternatives to children may help prevent obesity.

Obesity Study Aims to Learn What Kids Would Rather Do Than Eat

Published March 1, 2017

Researchers in the Department of Pediatrics are using a $2.8 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to study if providing more non-food alternatives could help prevent childhood obesity.

Gauging Role of Non-Food Options in Weight Control

Children who are overweight aren’t necessarily more interested in food than their slimmer peers, but past research shows they are typically less interested than peers in non-food activities, such as sports or imaginative play.

“The goal is to identify whether motivation for non-food alternatives protects against weight gain over time,” says Katelyn Carr, PhD, postdoctoral researcher in the Behavioral Medicine Laboratory of the Department of Pediatrics.

“We want to find out whether a child’s motivation to participate in what we call a non-food alternative, whether it be practicing a musical instrument, doing homework or playing with a friend, will compete with their motivation to eat,” she says.

If it does, then one way to prevent childhood obesity would be to make more of those activities more readily available to children.

Socioeconomic Status May Also Be Contributing Factor

“Our thought is that if children only have food in their environments, then eating is what they’ll do,” Carr says. “But the question is: If other enjoyable activities are available, even if they’re already motivated to eat, will they choose to do those other things?”

She noted that watching television, technically a non-food activity, is considered a complement, not an alternative, to eating.

According to Carr, past research has found that the more alternatives individuals have in their environment, the less likely they are to use or abuse substances, whether it’s food, cigarettes or drugs.

It is also known that there are usually fewer non-food alternatives in homes and communities at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. For that reason, the study will also examine the availability of non-food alternatives in relation to socioeconomic status.

Laboratory-Based Computer Games to Aid Study

The researchers plan to recruit approximately 300 Western New York children, ages 6 to 9, and visit them in their homes to see what kinds of foods and activities are available to them. With the help of their parents, the children will fill out questionnaires about activities they like to participate in.

During the next two years, each child will then make three visits to the Behavioral Medicine Laboratory on the UB South Campus, where they will play computer games to earn points.

This activity will tell the researchers how much work the child is motivated to do for food, known as food-reinforcement, versus how much they are motivated to work for a specific activity.

Once they have earned a sufficient number of points, the children will then be able to snack or participate in a non-food activity that is either social; formal or informal sports activity; self-improvement, such as homework; or cognitively enriching, such as writing a story or engaging in imaginative play.

Grant Led by Internationally Recognized Expert in Field

The researchers are interested in finding out which non-food activities are more likely to be selected by children who do not gain weight. The next potential step, Carr explains, would be to add an intervention.

“As anyone who has been on a diet knows, it’s really difficult to restrict food intake,” she says. “We want to know if just by adding new activities into a child’s environment, is it possible to prevent overeating?”

Carr is study coordinator on the grant led by Leonard H. Epstein, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor of pediatrics and chief of behavioral medicine. Epstein is an internationally recognized expert on childhood weight control and family intervention.

The five-year NIH grant is funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.