In the United States, 18% of children between the ages of 6 and 11, and 21% of children ages 12 to 19 are medically classified as obese. A 2007 study found that 70% of obese children have at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and children with obesity are at risk for a variety of other conditions, including diabetes, sleep apnea, and joint and bone health issues. Obese children also have an 80% to 90% chance of becoming obese adults. The obesity epidemic among children could foreshadow serious adulthood health issues, as well as a massive public health toll. A new study published in the International Journal of Obesity aims to shed light on the phenomenon by showing how sugar affects the brains of obese children.
Sugar’s Effects on the Brains of Obese Children
Losing weight is notoriously difficult, especially for children, and brain scans of obese children could help explain why. University of California-San Diego researchers conducted brain scans on 23 children ranging in age from 8–12. During the scans, the children consumed one-fifth of a teaspoon of sugary water. Researchers told them to keep their eyes closed, swirl the water in their mouths, and remain focused on the sugar’s taste. According to body mass index (BMI) measures, 10 of the children were obese, and 13 had normal body weights. All of the children were right-handed, and none of them had been diagnosed with a psychiatric condition such as ADHD or depression. All of the children also reported liking the taste of sugar.
Brain imaging scans revealed that children classified as obese had more activity in the insular cortex and amygdala when they consumed sugar. These brain regions play roles in emotion, taste, reward, perception, and motivation. A third brain region, the striatum, develops during adolescence. Previous research on adults suggests that this region, which plays a key role in motivation and reward, may be linked to obesity. Researchers argue that their findings may hint at the early development of a food-reward circuitry among children whose striata have not yet fully developed.
Researchers don’t yet know why obese children’s brains respond differently to sugar, providing fertile ground for future research. It’s possible that a strong response to sugar increases the likelihood of obesity. Environment and nutrition can also change the brain, though, so it could be that children who eat large quantities of obesity-causing foods such as sugar experience brain changes that increase their likelihood of continuing to consume these foods.
- Childhood obesity facts. (2014, December 11). Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/obesity/facts.htm
- Obese children’s brains more responsive to sugar. (2014, December 12). Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/12/141212091748.htm
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