First off, let me apologize for that title. It was written by someone who was once called “The World’s Skinniest Fat Kid.” I was slapped with that criticism, making fun of my pot belly and pipe-stem arms, more than 50 years ago by someone who supposedly cared about me. It’s unfortunate how long insults like that remain alive and unwell in our otherwise fragile memory banks.
That said, research out of NYU’s School of Medicine seems to actually support the claim above. Dr. Antonio Convit, an obesity researcher, has found a number of disturbing findings about how being overweight negatively impacts the brain. First off, fat kids by comparison, were very likely to have smaller brains than kids of similar age and background. As a general rule, smaller brains result in decreased ability to process energy and information. Inflammation as a result of overeating is also highly correlated with cognitive impairment in children. There’s also an unfortunate relationship between being fat and being financially insecure. That one actually hits close to home. ;-(
The Wet Head is Not Dead
Additionally, Dr. Convit found that the brains of fat children had significantly more water on the amygdala. The amygdala is the so-called smoke alarm of the brain, studied exhaustively by Joseph LeDoux, also at NYU. It’s the place in the brain that immediately detects any threat. It’s also involved with eating behavior, and compromised amygdala function is also correlated with decreased impulse control and places significant constraints around our social network.
Another disturbing finding from Convit’s research is that fat children, by comparison, have smaller orbitofrontal cortices (OFC). The OFC is partly responsible for “Executive Function.” Having smaller numbers of connections in that area affects a whole host of abilities, from planning and time management, to decision-making and resisting temptation. People with poor Executive Function networks have a much harder time answering The Big Brain Question “Yes” for themselves and other people.
Reduced limbic-OFC neural connections are also believed to underlie the “slippery slope” theory of obesity: overeating results in changes in the brain that increase the probability of future overeating. In addition, poor impulse control and poor decision-making can make fat children more susceptible to emotional volatility. Children who can’t control themselves emotionally both scare other children and alienate them, which often results in they themselves being targeted for bullying and being made fun of. It’s not an accident that our nation’s obesity epidemic is rising concurrently with incidences of bullying in our public schools.
Exercise: Necessary, but Not Sufficient
Most of us understand that in order to lose excess poundage and maintain a healthy body weight, calorie intake and expenditure needs to be pretty well balanced. In order to easily do that however, we need to have a neural network that allows us to successfully regulate our cravings. If we don’t already possess such a network, how do we build or remodel the network deficits we have? That’s an open question that many of us need creative help answering.
To my dismay and utter disbelief, our work with kids though, needs to start at an even more remedial level than either exercise or calorie-balancing. In this astonishing prize-winning TED talk by Naked Chef Jamie Oliver, we see a whole class of elementary school kids who don’t know what a fruit or a vegetable is! They can’t name a potato or a tomato. A pepper or a plum is a completely foreign object to them. This seems strange to say, but parents who love their children need to teach them these fundamental basics.
Beyond the Basics
So, parents have work to do, for themselves and their children. One thing they might do is work in accord with the Golden Rule of Neuroscience: hang out with skinny people. Kind and caring people who can easily control cravings and food portions, and who won’t get swung over to the fat, dark side, increase the odds of wirelessly transmitting their organization to those of us so less organized.
Another thing parents might consider is to have kids work with a body-based counselor or psychotherapist to help release and rewire neurons holding traumatic memories, back into the network. I’ve already sung the praises of The Possibility Project here in this blog. They have kids dance, sing and act out their personal trauma histories to miraculous healing effect.
Beyond that, there is room for a whole host of creative responses to be developed and tested out in the real world to find things that actually work with real people. In the end however, we might simply have to take a page out of Kate Harding’s blog and simultaneously both embrace and let go of … The Fantasy of Being Thin.