Obese Children’s Brains May Respond Differently to Sugar

A child sprinkles sugar on a bowl of cerealIn 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.


  1. Childhood obesity facts. (2014, December 11). Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/obesity/facts.htm 
  2. 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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  • Martha


    December 16th, 2014 at 10:56 AM

    Is there any way to tell of the different responses are as a result of them being obese or would this have been evident even before the child developed a problem with their weight?

  • lydia


    December 16th, 2014 at 1:31 PM

    A large part of this has to be about the environment in which the child is being raised and what kinds of foods they are being exposed to from an early age. If they get junk at home all of the time of course they are going to learn to like this far more than they will healthy fruits and vegetables. If they are given a choice they will make the bad ones. Exposing your children to fresh and healthy food choices from a very young age is critical for the health and development and for ensuring that they make healthy choices as they become adults. Much of this is all about what they are given and what they see others around them indulging in.

  • steven


    December 16th, 2014 at 8:41 PM

    so they consume more of sugary foods and other unhealthy foods because they like it more than non obese kids! I can definitely see how a bigger craving can lead to more consumption. I just hope there could be a way to actually help trick the brain into not loving some foods so damn much!
    FYI-I was obese as a child too. I am 25 now and although things have improved I am sure I can be classified as overweight if not obese.

  • Riley


    December 17th, 2014 at 3:58 AM

    This country needs to take a serious look at what we classify as healthy eating and not and start with the very youngest of our citizens if we wish to change the course that we are taking. The way that our lives are so fast paced and hectic it is no wonder that we all try to stay hyped up on sugar all the time just to make it through the day! That is fine for an adult because you know, we can make our own choices. But we see that we are doing serious damage to our children as a result and still, no big changes are being made.

  • Cat


    December 17th, 2014 at 10:59 AM

    There are some families out there doing the very best that they can with what they are given and sadly many times the things that are the most affordable for them to feed their children are the things that in all likelihood are the worst things for them. We have to do a better job at, yes, educating the public about what some better choices could be, but also helping them have a greater accessibility to the things that we would rather they have instead. Simply telling someone that they should do this and that is one thing. Making it a real and affordable option for them is quite another.

  • liza


    December 26th, 2014 at 10:19 AM

    I feel so bad for these kids because for as much as we all try to be a little more open minded and conscious of what our words and images do these children, it seems so unfair that there are always going to be obese kids ridiculed for their size and that their health is suffering for a reason that we now believe many of them may not even have any control over! Very sad.

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