BYU study finds key to teenage weight loss

Mark A. Philbrick
A man is set up for a brain scan in the Magnetic Resonance Imaging Research Facility at BYU. (Mark A. Philbrick, BYU Photo)

BYU psychology researchers recently discovered a key to weight loss through MRI scans of teenagers’ brains.

The BYU Department of Psychology conducted a study to discover how teenagers react to food. Participants fasted for four hours, then lay in an MRI scanner, where they were shown pictures of healthy and unhealthy food.

“One key feature that we found is that the teenagers who have lost weight demonstrate more executive function,” said Chad Jensen, a psychologist at BYU and co-author of the study.

Jensen explained executive function as willpower, or the ability to delay gratification; it is the ability to resist the urge to act now in order to achieve a goal of higher value later.

“The weight loss groups have to work harder at inhibiting the impulse to eat high-calorie food,” Jensen said. “They show a greater ability to prioritize their goals.”

Researchers studied three different groups of teenagers. The first group consisted of overweight teenagers; the second group included teenagers who had successfully lost weight and kept it off for at least one year; and the third group included teenagers who have historically maintained a healthy weight.

Jensen said the findings show promise in helping teens achieve a healthy weight. Aerobic activity has been suggested as a great way to achieve weight loss goals, not just because it burns calories but because it is a way to increase executive function.

“Aerobic activity is important for success, as it inhibits the desire to eat high-calorie food,” Jensen said.

Another activity that can help improve executive functioning is playing computer games that are specifically made for this purpose. Jensen said these games are mainly geared to younger children and help them work on delayed gratification.

“It’s all about thinking about the future and not spending all the money now but saving it for something you value more in the future,” Jensen said.

These games are not currently commercially available, but Jensen said there is hope that they will be available in the future. Jensen and his co-author, Brock Kirwan, a neuroscientist at BYU, plan to follow up on their study by conducting more MRI scans on teenagers, this time with an emphasis on how sleep affects executive functioning.

“We know that this is a sleep-deprived group and that if you could get kids to get more sleep, then that might improve executive function,” Kirwan said. “That might improve executive control and the ability to make good choices about the food they are eating.”

The Weight Management for Youth website includes BMI tests, healthy activities and childhood obesity resources for those seeking health or more information.

Currently Jensen and his team are in search of teenagers who are willing to participate in this new study. For more information, text 385-200-1368 or call 801-422-6164.

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