News Archive

Mindfulness and Health


IFamily Speakers ESOFThink consciously about food and activity choices, rather than go with the flow.  Because being mindful of these choices impacts our waistline and general health.  The “mindfulness” approach will arm you with a shield of self-awareness; you can use it to defend against temptation and marketing.


The science behind this self-management was explored at a recent session of the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) in Manchester, UK.  Scientists from the I.Family study spoke about the new discoveries they have made.   Some in the audience were surprised to hear that one-third of children in the UK are obese.  Obesity in kids is on the up across Europe.  Speakers offered tips to help us raise our well-being through mindfulness.


Those entering the session (Think Health: a mindful approach to well-being) were offered a choice of one sweet now or two sweets later.  Experiments have tested people’s willingness to delay rewards.  “How well 4 year old children are able to inhibit their response to an immediate award has even been able to predict body mass index 40 years later,” said Floor van Meer, I.Family scientist from University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands.


She has carried out MRI scans of the brain while offering people food choices.  Those who are better at resisting temptations, show more activity in a certain part of the brain (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex).  “In the I.Family study, we ask children and their parents to make food choices while we scan their brain,” says van Meer. “The fascinating thing is that we can change people’s brain activation and behavior by asking them to consider the healthiness of the food when making choices.” When people are mindful of health, this boosts healthier choices. This happens because part of the brain is activated that helps defer immediate gains in favour of long-term rewards.   In children, this still holds true. But it is more of a challenge for kids to resist. Here’s why:  “Unfortunately these prefrontal areas are the last areas to mature in children,” says van Meer.


The intake of healthy food in children has also been studied by I.Family.  Familiality accounts for 70% of healthy food intake in 2 to 10 year olds.  Leonie-Helen Bogl of the University of Helsinki defines this concept of familiality as the proportion of variation in a trait explained by genetic and shared environmental influences between individuals.  Genes do play a role here, but there is more. Parents and environment have a big influence.


As the child ages and gains independence, the familiality influence wanes to 45%, as the parental reins loosen.  “This highlights the importance of being mindful within your influences on your children, especially in early life,” said Mikhaela Neequaye, who presented on behalf of Bogl for Minerva Communications.  You not only pass down your genes to your child, but also influence how they interact with food for the rest of their lives. Mindful actions can deliver your child a healthier life.


During a breakaway group demonstration, consumer behavior expert Wencke Gwozdz of Copenhagen Business School, Denmark, gave insights into how psychology influences our choices.  A variant of the famous gorilla movie – where participants are so distracted watching ball throwing that they fail to see the gorilla walk across the screen – led into a discussion of anchoring.  “This is what marketing can do. It focuses our mind on one thing [anchors it], so we miss something else. It’s very human. Happens all the time,’ said Gwozdz.  Another marketing approach is to “frame” information in a certain way.  The same cut of beef could be labeled 25% fat or 75% fat free, yet fat free sounds healthier.  It is exactly the same, but the perception is not.  Bear in mind that you are not always rational in your thinking.  We should have this in mind when we go to shop in the supermarket: it will help us choose consciously rather than be led away by smart schemes or catchy phrases.


Healthy choices are not all about our genes or family, nor all in our head.  The built environment also holds some sway over our lifestyle. This is the focus of Byron Tibbitts from the University of Bristol, UK, who spoke during a breakaway group demo.  “Our food and physical activity are heavily influenced by factors outside our control,” he explained.  Access to and availability of certain foods influences what we eat.   “If we’ve access to places that will provide us with healthy food, we are much more likely to consume healthy food. Proximity matters.” On the other hand, it can be a problem in areas of deprivation when people have limited access to healthy foods. This will seriously determine the choices that they make.  For physical exercise, walkability around your local area matters.


“In I.Family we are using tools like accelerometers and GPS devices in family settings, so with children and their parents, to understand and explore some of the interactions [between parent and child behaviours], and to look at how the built environment is navigated in different countries and settings,” Tibbitts explains


I.Family has built on data obtained from over 16,000 children. Its objectives: to shed light on thebiological, behavioral, social and environmental factors that drive dietary behavior as children edge towards adulthood.   A question from the audience later asked about transforming all the I.Family insights into action by influencing policy.  This will be a task for Minerva Communications. The I.Family Study Final Conference will take place in Brussels on February 9, 2017.


by Rhonda Smith, Director of Minerva Communications

Sleep studies in I.Family

We studied Dietary Carbohydrate and Nocturnal Sleep Duration in Relation to Children’s Body Mass Index among the IDEFICS Study cohort spread across eight European countries.

Previous research has found that there is a relationship between being overweight and not getting enough sleep. We believed that this relationship could potentially be impacted by a diet high in carbohydrate  and that the timing and type of carbohydrate, namely from starch or sugar, could be an important dietary consideration.

To study this, we examined the dietary intake of children participating in the eight-country European study who were recruited from September 2007 to June 2008, when the children were aged two to nine years.

We collected information on lifestyle, dietary intake, height and weight at two occasions.  5,944 children where included in the study in 2007  and 4,301 were re-examined two years later.  For each meal occasion morning, midday, and evening, which can be thought of as breakfast, lunch and dinner plus related snacks, we assessed starch intake in grams and sugar intake in grams.  We then divided the grams of starch and sugar by total energy intake (EI) in kilocalories.  To assign high carbohydrate intake from starch and high carbohydrate intake from sugar we divide the whole group into four by the proportion of carbohydrate intake. Those in the highest intake group were categorized as high carbohydrate consumers by starch and sugar separately and for each meal.

We found that short sleep duration as well as high carbohydrate-starch in the morning was positively associated with body mass index (BMI) z-scores. Further high carbohydrate-starch at midday was positively associated with body mass index (BMI) z-scores in children with short sleep duration, and negatively associated with BMI z-scores in those with normal sleep duration in 2007/2008.   However, this relationship did not persist over the two years of follow-up.

Our observations offer a perspective on the best timing for macronutrient consumption, which is known to be influenced by circadian rhythms or our sleep and wake cycles. Reduced carbohydrate intake, especially during morning and midday meals, and following night time sleep duration recommendations are two factors that may protect children from being overweight and both are factors that can be modified.

Making your comms innovations count

As we enter our final year of the I.Family Study, it’s a great chance to take stock of where we are and what we hope to achieve during this last stretch, across all areas of the project.

As head of the Cascade Platform (communication and dissemination), my job is not only to promote and share information about the project – such as by writing pieces for our website! – but also to help others with getting their voices heard across whatever capacity they need.

In I.Family our researchers work on highly topical material – childhood overweight and obesity continue to make headlines across the globe, so our investigations into determinants of food and lifestyle choices in early life and adolescence remain relevant and timely. But being able to communicate findings is vital if they are to be understood by the non-expert and impact the wider landscape of obesity and childhood health research.

At our General Assembly in Majorca last month I was asked to deliver some media training for I.Family’s Young Researchers (YRs), many of whom are not experienced in sharing their stories with journalists. Our aim was to help them identify what they wanted to say and how they could say it, to deliver an ‘interview with impact’ and get the best exposure for their results and the project overall.

Whilst there were understandably some nerves before stepping in front of the camera, all the YRs performed brilliantly; it’s not always easy to think and speak under pressure, after all – particularly when English is a second language. Even our seasoned project co-ordinators, who joined the training session, admitted to nerves. But the experience of being interviewed and recorded will prepare our researchers well as we move towards our final project conference next year at the International Press Centre in Brussels and other events along the way, such as ESOF (European Science Open Forum) in Manchester, UK, this July, to be attended by many journalists.

Skills in communication are often underrated with hard science and results top of mind. But learning the importance of communication, and particularly how to deliver it concisely and with maximum engagement and impact to a variety of audiences (not just the media), is vital for all publicly-funded researchers if they are to demonstrate value-for-money and safeguard the legacy of their work.

by Rhonda Smith, Director of Minerva Communications and Leader of Work Package 9 (Cascade Platform)

The I.Family statistics panel: addressing the challenges of complex data

I.Family researchers are faced with a complex data structure that has to be statistically accounted for using sophisticated methods. This is of utmost importance since our results will have high impact for families and their children and therefore it has to be ensured that people can trust our results.

I.Family is based on the IDEFICS cohort of 16,228 children aged 2 to 9 years at baseline, meaning that repeated observations over time are available for the same individuals (waves 1-3: IDEFICS; wave 4,5: I.Family). Measurement times are not equidistant and numbers of repetitions as well as ages at measurement vary between participants. Moreover, the I.Family survey was extended to the siblings and parents of the IDEFICS children.

This specific data structure necessitates innovative and well thought-of methods for statistical modeling. Values measured within the same individual over time are likely to be correlated and individuals within a family are genetically and environmentally more similar to each other than unrelated individuals. For both reasons, our observations are not independent, meaning that standard statistical models like e.g. analysis of variance (ANOVA), ordinary linear or logistic regression models are not applicable. Furthermore, our data cover a wide age span (2 to 15 year old children/adolescents + parents) and hence another challenge arises from age dependencies of exposure and outcome measures.  In particular, growth-related changes throughout childhood (e.g. changes in energy intake) make it difficult to distinguish unfavorable behavior from “normal” age-specific behavior and for many parameters, reference values in children are lacking.

The selection of statistical methods to appropriately analyse our data requires an in depth understanding of the assumptions inherent in various standard methods. For specific research purposes, adaptations or the development of new statistical approaches that fit to the situation at hand are also required. To cope with these complex data issues, a statistic panel consisting of statisticians and mathematicians of the I.Family consortium has been initiated. The panel meets routinely to encourage discussions, raise awareness, solve upcoming statistical problems, and to bring forward statistical methodology to adequately analyse the I.Family data.

By Prof Dr Iris Pigeot, I.Family Study Deputy Co-ordinator, & Claudia Börnhorst, BIPS

One size does not fit all – can we curb obesity by capturing its complexity?

In 2011, the Red Cross reported that globally there are more people dying from overweight than from starvation. In most countries obesity rates have kept on rising since. On the one hand, the cause of so-called diet-induced obesity is simple: If you ingest more calories than you expend, than you will gain weight and eventually become obese. From this perspective the solution is simple: just eat less or burn more calories.

On the other hand, most experts agree that obesity poses a complex and multi-factorial problem with serious impact on individual health and health care systems. Undeniably, the complex interactions between our biology (genes, physiology) and (food) environment render a large proportion of the world’s population overweight or obese or at risk for that. Thus, there are no simple solutions. Despite the complexity of the obesity problem most studies compare average responses between normal-weight versus obese individuals, or study the association of one or a handful of features with body mass index (BMI). Given the complexity of the problem this approach, although useful, can only scratch the surface of the problem.

How can we go beyond BMI and and capture the complexity of the  obesity problem? In I.Family, a diverse set of measures is obtained from children and their parents. This includes measures as diverse as genetics, neuropsychological profile, physical activity, eating behaviour and taste perception. Together with data on the same individuals from the preceding IDEFICS project this has yielded a dataset with unique potential for examining a variety of factors associated with obesity in concert. Moreover, neuroimaging data on how healthy food choices are made in the brain are being collected. We aim to use this to establish more sophisticated risk profiles. These may help to steer prevention and treatment of obesity, which should be evidence-based and ‘personalized’.

In my opinion, stronger government control is necessary as telling people to eat healthy is not effective. We need to make healthy eating the norm, and create a (food) environment that promotes healthy behaviours. This means better health education in schools, more responsible parents and even banning or taxing energy-dense fast foods. It’s either that or the obesity problem will keep on growing…

By Dr. Paul Smeets, Associate Professor, University Medical Center Utrecht, The Netherlands

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