A study by the journal of the Association for Psychological Science shows that children have stronger food cravings than adolescents and adults but use a cognitive strategy that reduces craving.
The study examined food association, food cravings and regulation of food cravings with age in 105 healthy individuals. The research participants were aged between 6-23 years of age and shown pictures of unhealthy by appetizing salty and sweet foods while undergoing neuro-imaging scans.
The 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. The participants rated how much they wanted to eat the food they had seen.
The data obtained revealed that 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 who had a 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.
“These findings are important because they suggest that we may have another tool in our toolbox to combat childhood obesity,” said psychological scientist and lead researcher Jennifer A. Silvers, a post-doctoral fellow at Columbia University in the laboratory of Professor Kevin Ochsner.
“Such environmental interventions are clearly important, but sugary sweets and tempting treats cannot always be avoided,” Silvers explains. “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.”
“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,” said Silvers.
J. A. Silvers, C. Insel, A. Powers, P. Franz, J. Weber, W. Mischel, B. J. Casey, K. N. Ochsner. Curbing Craving: Behavioral and Brain Evidence That Children Regulate Craving When Instructed to Do So but Have Higher Baseline Craving Than Adults. Psychological Science, 2014; DOI: 10.1177/0956797614546001