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Children have Strong but Controllable Food Cravings

Update Date: Sep 08, 2014 11:31 AM EDT

Food cravings can be a contributor to expanding waistlines. In a new study, researchers reported that children have stronger food cravings than adolescents and adults, which puts them at a greater risk of obesity. However, the researchers reported that these cravings could be controlled with proper techniques.

"These findings are important because they suggest that we may have another tool in our toolbox to combat childhood obesity," stated psychological scientist and lead researcher Jennifer A. Silvers, a post-doctoral fellow at Columbia University in the laboratory of Professor Kevin Ochsner.

For this study, the researchers recruited 105 healthy volunteers between the ages of six and 23. The participants were required to come to the lab for a neuroimaging session. They looked at pictures of different salty and sweets foods that were delicious but unhealthy.

Some of the patients were asked to pretend that the food was right in front of them and concentrate on how the food might smell and taste. Other people were asked to partake in a cognitive strategy that required them to pretend that the food was a lot farther away. They had to focus on the food's shape and color. The participants had to report how much they wanted to eat the foods. Throughout the session, the researchers took fMRI (functioning magnetic resonance imaging) scans.

The researchers found that when the participants were asked to focus on the foods' shapes and colors, their cravings were reduced by 16 percent. For children, however, using the cognitive strategy of visualizing the food did not reduce their cravings as much, which suggests that children, in general, have stronger cravings. However, the strategy was effective in reducing food cravings somewhat.

"If children as young as 6 can learn to use a cognitive strategy after just a few minutes of training, that has huge implications for interventions," Silvers stated.

The fMRI scans revealed that, as people grow older and had reduced food cravings, their lateral prefrontal cortex activity increased while their ventral striatum activity decreased. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for self-control, where as the latter region is tied to reward processing. When the team looked at these two regions in children with higher body mass indexes (BMI), which is a measurement of obesity, they found that this group of kids had less prefrontal activity when using the cognitive strategy.

"We believe this research has implications for a wide range of people, from basic scientists who are interested in how reward processing changes across the lifespan, to obesity researchers looking to devise interventions to curb childhood obesity, to parents and pediatricians trying to raise healthier and happier kids," commented Silvers according to the press release. "Having this basic knowledge in hand is critical if we want to understand how our relationship with food changes across the lifespan."

The study, "Curbing Craving Behavioral and Brain Evidence That Children Regulate Craving When Instructed to Do So but Have Higher Baseline Craving Than Adults," was published in the Association for Psychological Science's journal, Psychological Science.

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