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Does body composition determine brain’s response to food in children?

Posted:  Thursday, July 16, 2015

Who doesn’t salivate at the sight and smell of a pizza being baked or a burger being prepared? Well it turns out kids’ brain responses to food may be determined by their body composition. According to Penn State University researchers, both lean body mass and body fat are linked to how kids' brains respond to food.

The study involved 38 children ages 7 to 10 and their parents. Each of the families participated in a total of 5 lab visits. The children’s body composition was measured to get lean body weight and body fat. They also underwent a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan of a brain region called subtrantia nigra to ascertain the neural response when they looked at foods with different energy content. This brain region controls reward, learning, and motor control functions. The results of the study will be presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior (SSIB).

The researchers found that neural activation of substrantia nigra was different in children with different body compositions. Those with greater lean body weight exhibited powerful neural response when they looked at high calorie foods in comparison to those with lower lean body weight. Also, children with higher body fat had lower activity when looking at healthier low calorie foods such as vegetables, fruits, and grilled chicken.

"We think that kids with more lean body weight might have a greater reward response to higher calorie foods, in part because they have greater energy needs compared to children with less lean body weight. Lean body weight largely determines how many calories we burn each day through our resting metabolic rate. Bigger kids burn more calories, and our results show that their brains respond differently to foods. Interestingly, we also found that children with more body fat had a reduced brain response to lower calorie foods, which tend to be the healthier options. It might be that kids with higher body fat find those healthier foods to be less rewarding. But we don't know yet whether having more body fat is a cause or a consequence of these brain responses," explained the researchers.

The caloric content of the food and the children’s body composition seem to be determining factors for a particular choice of food. With further proof, the findings could be a step towards decoding childhood obesity. However, the researchers expressed their need for further research to determine how these findings relate to children's food intake or their body weight over time.

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