Will power can protect boys from obesity – but not girls

Exercising good self-control is not enough to prevent girls from becoming obese, a new study has found. 

Researchers say that even girls who are the least impulsive at age two are more likely to become obese by age five.

However, male toddlers with the most will power are less likely to be obese than their peers by the time they reach school.

The study, led by Ohio State University, is the first to identify a gender difference in the link between regulating behavior and childhood obesity.

Exercising good self-control is not enough to prevent girls from becoming obese, a new study has found

The study analyzed data from 6,400 US children born in 2001 from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study Birth Cohort, to see if the ability to  practice self-control at age two years old affected the risk of obesity in kindergarten.

According to the researchers, a lack of self-control is associated with poor health, economic and social outcomes in adults. 

Scientists visited the childhood’s home and assessed their behavior using four dimensions: adaptability, attention, persistence, and frustration tolerance.

Each dimension received a score from one to five so a child could receive anywhere from a total score of four, which meant a low level of self-regulation, to 20 – an indicator of high self-regulation.

‘Although we tend to assume more self-regulation is always a positive, it may not be,’ said lead author Dr Sarah Anderson, an associate professor of epidemiology at Ohio State University.

Interventions to improve self-control might not play out the same way for boys and girls.

‘People are trying ways to prevent obesity in young children, and some of those approaches involve improving self-regulation,’ said Dr Anderson

‘Our study suggests that could have an unintended impact for some girls.’

Her team said the findings add to other obesity research that has found important differences between genders.

Dr Anderson said: ‘All we can do based on this research is speculate but it’s possible girls and boys are reacting differently to social expectations and that could play a role in childhood obesity.

‘If you’re a boy and if the people around you are more OK with you getting easily frustrated and not paying attention, the social stress from your environment may be less than it is for a girl.’

It’s also possible girls are rewarded more than boys for ‘good’ behaviour – propelling them to put themselves under more pressure to appease adults.

Dr Anderson said: ‘These stresses might result in differences in energy balance and metabolism between girls and boys – especially in the group observed to have high self-regulation.’


The rate of childhood obesity has tripled since the 1970s, affecting one in five children in the US and 14 percent of those between ages two and four years old, according to CDC data released in February.

Childhood obesity is now the number one health concern among parents in the US, topping drug abuse and smoking.   

Obesity continues to plague more than one-third of adults in the US, and experts have warned that that proportion will only grow as younger generations do. 

Over the last two decades, the US has implemented countless awareness programs to try to combat the obesity epidemic.

Former first lady Michelle Obama became a mascot for healthier children while her husband was in office, spearheading the ‘Let’s Move’ campaign, designed to motivate children to eat healthier and stay active in an effort to promote overall health.

But in December of last year, the US Department of Agriculture announced that it would relax the school lunch guidelines she championed – requiring more fresh fruits and vegetables and low-sugar dining options – in favor of new rules that would allow sweetened milk and sodium rich entrees.

But girls who scored either high or low in tests when they were two were more likely than those with average self-regulation to be obese at five.

Boys with high self-control were less likely to be obese than their peers with low or average scores.  

‘Observers were looking at things like how readily a child gave up a block when an adult said it was time to play with something else, how difficult it was to hold their attention and how easily frustrated they became when things weren’t going their way,’ said Dr Anderson

‘Going in, we thought what many people think – that we would see lower rates of obesity as self-regulation increased.’

But when they looked at their data, in which they separated children into quartiles ranging from ‘least regulated’ to ‘most regulated,’ girls in the former and latter groups were more likely to be obese at five than their peers in the middle categories.

There was little difference in boys’ risk of obesity except among the most-regulated – who were least likely to be obese.

Obesity was determined by measuring height and weight and defined as a BMI (body mass index) greater than or equal to the highest five percent.

Dr Anderson said: ‘We should not assume that interventions to increase self-regulation will necessarily lead to benefits for both genders – it may be different for boys and girls.’

The researchers said there are many ongoing efforts to promote self-control in children for a variety of desired outcomes – including obesity prevention and improved school readiness.

In neither gender did the researchers see a clear step-wise pattern where increased self-control meant less obesity.

A variety of factors could be involved including physiological differences and behavioral responses to demands in a child’s environment that could affect appetite, food intake, sleep and activity level, said the researchers.

Co-author Prof Robert Whitaker, of Temple University in Philadelphia, said: ‘Obesity prevention is a complex and humbling task.

‘Gender is another social influence that may affect the success of obesity prevention efforts.’

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