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Sep 08, 2014 11:07 AM EDT

Food Craving is Stronger for Kids

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Children have stronger food craving than adolescent and adults, but they are also more controllable.

Researchers from Columbia University found that although children show stronger food craving, they are able to use a cognitive strategy that reduces craving.

"These findings are important because they suggest that we may have another tool in our toolbox to combat childhood obesity," Jennifer A. Silvers, lead researcher of the study and psychological scientist, said in a statement.

Most interventions aimed at preventing or reducing childhood obesity focus on changing the environment -- by limiting access to soda, for example, or by encouraging physical activity. Although such environmental interventions are important, "sugary sweets and tempting treats" cannot always be avoided, Silvers stressed.

"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," he said.

For the study, researchers had 105 healthy individuals come to the lab to participate in a neuroimaging session. The participants, who ranged in age from 6 to 23 years, were shown pictures of a variety of unhealthy but appetizing salty and sweet foods while undergoing fMRI scans.

For some of the pictures, participants were told to imagine the food was in front of them and to focus on how the food tastes and smells. For the other pictures, they were told to imagine that the food was farther away and to focus on the visual aspects of the food, such as its shape and color.

After viewing each picture, the participants rated how much they wanted to eat the food they had seen.

The study results revealed that participant of all ages reported less craving when they used the cognitive strategy of imagining the visual aspects of the food, amounting to a 16 percent reduction in craving.  Even when using the strategy, however, children's food cravings were still stronger than those of adolescents and adults, suggesting that food are generally more desirable to children.

Age-related reductions in craving were associated with increased activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex, which is involved in self-control, and decreased activity in the ventral striatum, which is involved in reward processing.

Children with higher weight-to-height ratios (known as Body Mass Index, or BMI) showed relatively less prefrontal activity when using the cognitive strategy to regulate food craving than did children with lower BMI, suggesting that the areas of the brain involved in regulating craving may differ depending on body mass.

"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," Silvers said.

The findings were recently published in the journal Psychological Science.

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