A recent study published in the International Journal of Obesity from scientists at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine reveals that when obese children taste sugar their brains “light up” differently.
The study suggests that obese children may experience a heightened psychological reward response to food instead of supporting that there is a causal relationship between overeating and sugar sensibility.
This higher sense of reward through food, which can involve being motivated by food and feeling very good because of it, could imply that some of the children have brain circuits that make them more predisposed to crave sugar throughout their lives.
Kerri Boutelle, PhD, founder of the university’s Center for Health Eating and Activity Research (CHEAR), professor in the Department of Psychiatry and first author of the study said in a press release: “The take-home message is that obese children, compared to healthy weight children, have enhanced responses in their brain to sugar (…) That we can detect these brain differences in children as young as eight years old is the most remarkable and clinically significant part of the study.”
These conclusions come from an assessment of 23 children that had their brains scanned by the UC San Diego team. Children were between eight and twelve years-old and were analyzed while tasting a one-fifth teaspoon of water and sucrose (table sugar) mixed together. Children tasted the mixture with their eyes closed so they could be focused on the flavor.
Ten of the 23 children were obese and thirteen had healthy weights according to their body mass indices, and all the factors that could interfere with the results were pre-screened (none of the children suffered from psychiatric disorders, they were all right-handed, and they all liked the taste of sucrose that they were about to try).
Results showed that the obese children had higher activity in the insular cortex and amygdala which are regions of the brain involved in emotion, perception, taste, awareness, motivation and also reward. Curiously, the striatum, a region of the brain associated with obesity in adults was not heightened; although it can be explained by the fact that this region is only fully developed in adolescence.
Boutelle said in a press release: “Any obesity expert will tell you that losing weight is hard and that the battle has to be won on the prevention side. The study is a wake-up call that prevention has to start very early because some children may be born with a hypersensitivity to food rewards or they may be able to learn a relationship between food and feeling better faster than other children.”
About one in each three children in the United States is obese or overweight, and according to studies, those who are obese in childhood have 80 to 90 percent of becoming obese adults.