A new study led by researchers at University of California, San Diego School of Medicine finds that the brains of obese children literally light up differently when tasting sugar. Published online in International Journal of Obesity, the study shows that children who are overweight have an intense psychological reward response to food.
This elevated sense of “food reward” which involves being motivated by food and deriving a good feeling from it have brain circuitry that predispose them to crave more sugar throughout life. According to studies, children who are obese have an 80 to 90 percent chance of growing up to become obese adults. Currently about one in three children in the U.S. is overweight or obese.
“The take-home message is that obese children, compared to healthy weight children, have enhanced responses in their brain to sugar,” says author Kerri Boutelle, professor in the Department of Psychiatry and founder of the university’s Center for Health Eating and Activity Research (CHEAR). “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,” she said.
The brain images showed that obese children had heightened activity in the insular cortex and amygdala, regions of the brain involved in perception, emotion, awareness, taste, motivation and reward.
Don’t Use Sugar or Food as a Reward
“Any obesity expert will tell you that losing weight is hard and that the battle has to be won on the prevention side,” said Boutelle, who is also a clinical psychologist. “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.”
We also know that the addiction to sugar starts with brain chemistry. Additional studies show that dopamine levels can trigger food addiction. Sugar and other stimulating addictions increase dopamine in the short term, after a few minutes, but then trigger the brain to crave more of the addicting substance. It appears that those with sugar addictions, compulsive eating and obesity have dopamine systems that need much more stimulation to feel pleasure. For kids and adults, this means more of the sugary stuff. Their brains literally crave more sugar to get the pleasurable response. Often addictive and impulsive behaviors ensue.
How to Reduce Sugar Cravings
- Test your Neurotransmitters and take supplements to help balance dopamine. Glutamine, tyrosine, 5-HTP are amino acids that help reduce cravings, however you can’t just guess your levels of dopamine. Testing allows you to see where other imbalances are occurring and allows for clinical intervention to aid in the balancing the dopamine and other neurotransmitter levels that are causing cravings to exist.
- Don’t reward yourself (or your kids) with sugar. Reward them with time, activities and things that drive intrinsic motivation (earning toys, games, outings).
- Optimize omega 3s: Low levels of omega 3 fatty acids are involved in normal brain cell function, insulin control and inflammation.
- Balance your blood sugar.Research studies say that low blood sugar levels are associated with LOWER overall blood flow to the brain, which means more BAD decisions. To keep your blood sugar stable:
- Eat a nutritious breakfast with some protein like eggs, protein shakes or nut butters. Studies repeatedly show that eating a healthy breakfast helps people maintain weight loss.
- Also, have smaller meals throughout the day. Eat every 3-4 hours and have some protein with each snack or meal (lean animal protein, nuts, seeds, beans).
- Eliminate sugar and artificial sweeteners and to reduce cravings. Eliminate refined sugars, sodas, fruit juices, and artificial sweeteners from your diet. These prompt cravings to occur.
Remember, don’t reward your child, or yourself, with food rewards. This will lead to more cravings. Try to use praise and activities to encourage and reward good behavior.
By Emily Roberts MA, LPC
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Emily Roberts MA, LPC is the clinical therapist for the Neurogistics Children’s Program. She has worked with Neurogistics for over a decade. Emily is also an award-winning author of Express Yourself: A Teen Girls Guide to Speaking Up and Becoming Who You Are, Psychotherapist, TV & Media Contributor, educational speaker and parenting consultant. Express Yourself is available at bookstores nationwide and on Amazon. To learn more about Emily click here.
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