Research shows children’s sweet tooth can predict obesity

Sunday, May 1, 2016 - 4:20pm

New University research shows a childhood preference for sweet foods may be a predictor of unhealthy weight gain.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over one-sixth of children and adolescents were obese in 2012, which translates to about 12.7 million individuals. Over the past 30 years, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents.

Childhood obesity is also correlated to adult obesity. Obesity increases the risk of developing many different health problems including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and many types of cancer.

Julie Lumeng, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University, and her team recently published a study in Pediatrics medical journal describing the correlation between childhood eating habits and weight gain.

Lumeng said childhood obesity is a major public health issue, but it is not well-addressed. According to Lumeng, the current methods to curb the problem — which primarily focus on emphasizing healthy eating and exercise — are not effective.

“Childhood obesity is a significant public health problem, but there are few people to study it specifically in relation to children’s behaviors at very young ages,” Lumeng said. “The strategies for obesity prevention that we use right now are not particularly effective. We need to find new ways to intervene, and this might be a novel point for intervention.”

The team asked mothers to feed their toddlers of ages from birth to two years a typical lunch and then offer their children a plate of sweet and salty treats. The team observed that children who were offered sweet treats preferred increasingly sweeter food as they grew older and were more likely to be overweight. This correlation was not seen for children who elected salty snacks.

Their findings suggest some people may be more prone to obesity than others and that food preferences from very young age can determine the likelihood of obesity later in life.

“The findings suggest that children just have different predispositions to certain eating behaviors,” Lumeng said. “Parents may need to be particularly vigilant about limiting children’s access to sweets when their children have a particular love for sweets.”

Lumeng said the results of the study may act as a key step in understanding childhood obesity. 

“There could be many biological factors contributing to children’s food preferences,” Lumeng said. “It’s important to actively notice what foods children chose because it could be a key predictor in unhealthy weight gain as they grow older.”

The entire study took five years to complete. Lumeng and her team hope to follow the children in her study into adulthood to see if their eating behaviors in early childhood could predict future obesity.