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Impulsivity and food addiction behavior

A new study, "High Trait Impulsivity Predicts Food Addiction-Like Behavior in the Rat," appearing online April 29, 2014, in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, shows that impulsivity is a risk factor for food addiction. Impulsivity is a behavioral trait frequently seen in individuals who pathologically overeat as well as in in drug addicted individuals.Have you ever said to yourself that you would only have a handful of potato chips from the bag then, minutes later, realized you ate the whole thing?

Impulsivity and food addiction behavior.
Anne Hart, illustration and photography.

A recent study shows that this type of impulsive behavior might not be easily controlled – and could be a risk factor in the development of food addiction and eating disorders as a result of cellular activities in the part of the brain involved with reward. Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) led and conducted the research in collaboration with the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. It also points out the common mechanisms involved between drug and food addiction. (Pictured L-R: Dr. Valentina Sabino, Cassie Moore, Dr. Clara Velazquez, Toni Ferragud and Dr. Pietro Cottone)

Research has shown that people with eating disorders and obesity are known to be more impulsive than healthy people

For example, they may be more likely to blurt out something that they later regret saying or to start an activity without thinking through the consequences. However, it was unclear whether the impulsivity existed before the dysfunctional eating behavior or if developed as a result of it. Boston University School of Medicine researchers attempted to answer this question by measuring the inability to withhold an impulsive response in experimental models that were exposed to a diet high in sugar daily for one hour.

Models shown to be more impulsive rapidly developed binge eating, showing heightened cravings and the loss of control over the junk diet (measured as inability to properly evaluate the negative consequences associated with ingestion of the sugary diet). Conversely, models shown to be less impulsive demonstrated the ability to appropriately control impulsive behavior and did not show abnormal eating behavior when exposed to the sugary diet.

Interestingly, the impulsive models showed increased expression of a transcription factor called Delta-FosB in the nucleus accumbens, an area of the brain involved in reward evaluation and impulsive behavior, indicating a potential biological component to this behavior

“While impulsivity might have aided ancestors to choose calorie-rich foods when food was scarce, our study results suggest that, in today’s calorie-rich environment, impulsivity promotes pathological overeating,” said Pietro Cottone, PhD, according to the May 6, 2014 news release, "Study shows that impulsivity is risk factor for food addiction." Cottone is co-director of the Laboratory of Addictive Disorders and associate professor of pharmacology and psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM). “Our results add further evidence to the idea that there are similar mechanisms involved in both drug and food addiction behavior,” said Clara Velazquez-Sanchez, PhD, according to the news release. Velazquez-Sanchez is a postdoctoral fellow in the Laboratory of Addictive Disorder and first author of the study.

Research included in this study was supported in part by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute of Mental Health, the Peter Paul Career Development Professorship, the McManus Charitable Trust, and Boston University’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). Other contributors to the study include Valentina Sabino, PhD, co-director of the Laboratory of Addictive Disorders and assistant professor of pharmacology and psychiatry at BUSM; Antonio Ferragud, PhD, and Cassie Moore from BUSM; and Barry Everitt, ScD, from the University of Cambridge, UK. For further information, you may wish to check out the journal Neuropsychopharmacology. You also may wish to check out the abstract of another study, "The flavor of beer alone can trigger the urge to become intoxicated."

As kids age, snacking quality appears to decline, says new research

The average U.S. child snacks three times a day. Elementary school-age kids in a new study tended to eat snacks that enhanced diet quality, but older children ate snacks that detracted from diet quality.

Concerned about the role of snacking in obesity, in another study by different scientists, a team of researchers set out to explore how eating frequency relates to energy intake and diet quality in a sample of low-income, urban schoolchildren in the Boston area. They expected that snacking would substantially contribute to kids' overall energy intake, and the new data confirm that. But they were surprised that the nutritional value of snacks and meals differed by age.

The findings, "Associations of parental feeding styles with child snacking behavior and weight in the context of general parenting," led by first author E. Whitney Evans, a postdoctoral research fellow at Brown University and the Weight Control and Diabetes Center at The Miriam Hospital, are published online in the May 2014 issue of the journal Public Health Nutrition.

"Unexpectedly, in elementary school-age participants we found that overall eating frequency and snacks positively contributed to diet quality," wrote Evans and colleagues from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, where Evans did the research under the guidance of senior author Aviva Must, professor and chair of the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine. "In adolescents, however, our results suggested that snacks detract from overall diet quality while each additional meal increased diet quality."

The new study by researchers at Brown University and Tufts University suggests that while snacks uniformly contribute to energy intake in both children and adolescents, the effect of snacking on diet quality differs by age group. Findings suggest that snacks improve diet quality in elementary school-aged children, whereas they detract from diet quality in adolescents.

The diet quality differences by age were significant

Among the 92 school-age children aged 9 to 11 in the study, each snack raised their diet quality by 2.31 points, as measured on the Healthy Eating Index, 2005 developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Among the 84 teens in the study, aged 12 to 15, each snack dragged the quality score down by 2.73 points whereas each meal increased the quality score by 5.40 points.

Overall, each snack contributed about half as much to total daily energy intake as each meal, making them high-stakes eating moments, Evans said, according to the May 6, 2014 news release, "As kids age, snacking quality appears to decline."

"Snacks don't have to be vilified," said Evans who is both a parent and a registered dietitian. "Snacks can be beneficial to children's diets when made up of the right foods. But we do need to be aware that snacks do positively contribute to energy intake in children." The best snacks at any age, she said, according to the news release, are ones that are nutrient-rich, rather than calorically dense.

Evaluating eating: Best snacks are calorically dense

To conduct the study, Evans and a team of registered dietitians asked kids (with parental consent) at four Boston-area schools to provide some basic demographic information. Then, on two separate occasions, the kids completed a 24-hour diet recall, in which they recounted what they ate during the previous day. The kids were provided with references to help them describe what and how much they consumed.

Evans, Must and their colleagues determined the number of meals and snacks reported by each child, along with their total energy intake and diet quality score, as measured by the Healthy Eating Index, 2005. In all their analyses, the researchers accounted for variables such as gender, ethnicity, eligibility for free and reduced-price lunches, maternal education, and levels of physical activity.

The study data do not overtly explain why snacking has opposite effects on diet quality depending on a child's age, but the researchers note that younger children more frequently depend on (and perhaps abide) grownups, while older kids are more often make their own snacking choices.

Snacks strategies

The findings suggest a clear decay in snacking quality as children age, but rather than despairing, parents, educators and other care providers can make use of the findings, Evans said. One step could be to emphasize good snacking habits among younger kids, who may be relatively receptive to such messages, so that their potential decline may start from a better place. Another is to recognize that adolescents may be inclined to make worse choices and take steps to prevent that.

"It's important to help adolescents understand the implications of snacking, Evans said, according to the news release. "For example, snacks that could occur as mindless eating in front of the television may be the ones that increase their weight over time."

A third strategy is to embrace the clear importance of meals, especially for adolescents

The diet quality score rose 5.40 points with each meal for teens and 3.84 points with each meal for younger kids. "Meals, especially family meals, really have a great potential for increasing the diet quality of adolescents," Evans explained in the news release.

In addition to Evans and Must, other authors on the paper are Jennifer Sacheck,, an associate professor at the Friedman School and Paul Jacques, and Gerald Dallal, both senior scientists at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University and professors at the Friedman School. The National Institutes of Health funded the study (grants R01HL106160, NIDDK46200).

How does mealtime viewing during pregnancy set the stage for childhood obesity years after the baby's born?

Turning the TV off during mealtimes to help prevent childhood obesity may need to start even before a child is born, according to a study to be presented Tuesday, May 6, at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Mealtime TV viewing during pregnancy may set stage for childhood obesity.

The abstract of the new study, "Relationship between Prenatal TV Watching During Meals and Infant TV Exposure During Feeding," appears online. Researchers presented the study's findings May 6, 2014 during the Platform Session: General Pediatrics: Behavior / Development (12:15 PM - 2:15 PM) at the Vancouver Convention Center.

The research findings show that pregnant women who watched television while eating were more likely to have TV on when feeding their infants.

Turning the TV off during mealtimes to help prevent childhood obesity may need to start even before a child is born, according to a study presented Tuesday, May 6, 2014 at the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) annual meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Researchers found that pregnant women who watched television while eating were more likely to sit in front of the TV while feeding their infant. TV watching during meals is discouraged because it is associated with poorer quality diet, and mothers pay less attention to whether their children are full.

"Reinforcing healthy media habits during pregnancy may help reduce infants' mealtime media exposure and impact long-term media habits in children," said lead author Mary Jo Messito, MD, FAAP, according to the May 6, 2014 news release, Mealtime TV viewing during pregnancy may set stage for childhood obesity. "Reduction of mealtime TV viewing during pregnancy could be an important component in early childhood obesity prevention programs."

Dr. Messito and her colleagues analyzed data from the Starting Early project, an early childhood obesity prevention intervention for low-income Hispanic families at Bellevue Hospital Center/NYU School of Medicine, New York

Women were enrolled in the study during pregnancy, and mother-infant pairs were followed until the child was 3 years old. Women received individual nutritional counseling during pregnancy and after the baby was born, participated in parenting and support groups led by a nutritionist, and were given educational handouts and a video.

During their third trimester of pregnancy, 189 women were asked how often they watched TV during mealtimes. When their infants were 3 months old, mothers were asked how often their baby watched TV while being fed. Results showed that 71 percent of pregnant women reported at least some mealtime TV watching, and 33 percent of the mothers reported that their 3-month-olds were exposed to the TV during feeding.

Women who watched TV during meals while pregnant were five times more likely to expose their infants to TV during feeding than women who did not watch TV while eating during pregnancy

Mothers who were younger than age 25 and those who did not exclusively breastfeed also were more likely to expose their infant to TV while feeding them.

The total amount of time women spent per day watching TV while pregnant was not associated with their infants' exposure to television while being fed. "Few studies have identified how mealtime TV viewing habits begin in infancy, and what maternal characteristics during pregnancy and early infancy are associated with them," said Dr. Messito, according to the news release. Dr. Messito is project director of the Starting Early study. "Identifying specific maternal behaviors and characteristics associated with child TV viewing during meals will help early childhood obesity prevention efforts seeking to promote responsive feeding and limit TV exposure during infancy."

Research assistant Kenny Diaz presented "Relationship Between Prenatal TV Watching During Meals and Infant TV Exposure During Feeding" from 12:30-12:45 Tuesday, May 6. This study was supported by a grant from the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Childhood Obesity Prevention: Integrated Research, Education, and Extension to Prevent Childhood Obesity (2011-68001-30207).

The Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) are four individual pediatric organizations that co-sponsor the PAS Annual Meeting – the American Pediatric Society, the Society for Pediatric Research, the Academic Pediatric Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Members of these organizations are pediatricians and other health care providers who are practicing in the research, academic and clinical arenas.

The four sponsoring organizations are leaders in the advancement of pediatric research and child advocacy within pediatrics, and all share a common mission of fostering the health and well-being of children worldwide. For more information, visit the PAS meeting website. Or follow news of the PAS meeting on Twitter. You also may wish to check out the website of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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