Methods: 187 4- to 5-year-old Latino children were recruited through Head Start centers in a large city in the southeastern U.S. Children completed a delay of gratification task to assess emotion regulation and an eating in the absence of hunger task to assess intake regulation. In the emotion regulation task, children could receive a small amount of candy or could wait for seven minutes to receive a larger amount. To identify effective emotional self-regulation strategies, the rates (per minute) that the various strategies occurred were correlated with the total wait time and combined to create an effective strategies score. In the eating in the absence of hunger (EAH) task, children were left alone for 10 minutes with a number of palatable snack foods after eating a meal. Foods were weighed before and after the task to determine food and energy intakes. Child strategies were not coded during EAH because children had permission to eat the foods in this task. Obesity was defined as a child BMI above the 95th percentile for the child’s sex and age: 26% of the children were classified as obese.
Results: The emotional self-regulatory strategies positively correlated with total wait time in the delay of gratification task were: prevent movement, shut out stimuli, distraction without reward, and creates game with or without reward. Logistic regressions predicting children’s weight status (obese versus non-obese) showed that both eating in the absence of hunger (positively, OR = 1.67, 95% CI = 1.04 - 2.69) and the use of effective strategies (negatively, OR = .88, 95% CI = .77 - .99), but not total wait time, predicted child obesity.
Conclusions: The current findings are consistent with studies showing that for preschool children, summary measures of emotion regulation (e.g., wait time) did not predict children’s obesity. In contrast, emotion regulation strategies were significant predictors. These findings help identify emotion regulation strategies that prevention programs can target for helping children regulate their emotions and decrease their obesity risk.