by Tarrin McGhee
Each year, The Urban Child Institute’s annual Brain Awareness Night event brings renowned experts, researchers, and thought leaders to Memphis to discuss best practices to promote optimal brain development in young children.
This year, the healthy eating focus provided attendees an opportunity to gain a better understanding of how brain functions associated with food selection and consumption intersect, and a glimpse into how subsequent mental and physical responses to certain foods are triggered.
The message was timely as a 2012 CNN news report revealed that Memphis has the highest obesity rate in the United States.
Making national headlines for topping various “worst of” lists has unfortunately become a common occurrence as our city continues to grapple with public health concerns such as poverty, crime, infant mortality and obesity.
So common in fact, that when news breaks, the reaction from local residents can sometimes be nil or underwhelming.
But the staggering obesity rate that led to Memphis being labeled the “fattest city in America” is nothing to yawn at. Any statistic that poorly portrays the collective wellbeing of a community begs the need for devoted attention.
According to the Gallup Well-Being Index – an assessment that generates statistics on overall wellbeing, diabetes, obesity, frequent exercise, frequent produce consumption, city optimism, and the uninsured in cities across America – 30.4 percent of Memphis metropolitan area residents are obese.
And childhood obesity rates are steadily rising around the country.
Fortunately, local government and grassroots leaders are stepping forward to help reverse this negative trend. Healthy living is gaining popularity in the Mid-South With the emergence of efforts such as Move It Memphis, renewed energy on promoting outdoor physical activity through use of the city’s parks and green spaces, and the expanded presence of farmer’s markets and community gardens.
Additionally, various organizations such as The Urban Child Institute are issuing a wakeup call for residents who have concluded that certain societal ills like widespread obesity are merely the result of cultural trends or geographic locale.
The Brain Awareness Night presenters offered insight into how parents and caregivers can ensure children adopt healthy eating habits early on – a proactive approach to help reduce childhood and adult obesity rates over time.
“Humans are opportunistic eaters, and taste is the primary driver of eating behavior,” said Dr. John D. Boughter, Jr., associate professor in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.
In his presentation entitled “How Tricking the Brain’s Taste System During Development May Lead to Obesity,” Boughter described how the sense of taste engages parts of the brain involved in eating and reward, and how dysfunction in these vital systems may occur.
“Sweetness is a taste that causes dopamine release in brain reward circuits,” Boughter explained.
“It’s important to think about what young children are given (to eat), and how to mold and develop their food preference…taste preference can change as you grow older, but eating habits are formed very early in development.”
As learned behavior goes, children acquire different lifestyle habits (whether positive or negative) from adults and peers. The same rule applies to developing eating habits that promote or hinder good health.
Parents and caregivers must make conscious decisions about their child’s food intake, paying special attention to the types of foods offered regularly for daily consumption or as rewards for good behavior.
For example, processed foods such as cookies, potato chips, and even many juices and cereals are extremely high in sugar and salt contents that cause diabetes, high blood pressure and ultimately obesity.
In many households, these foods are frequently given to children for breakfast, as snacks or to deter bad behavior. By replacing unhealthy options with healthier selections, parents can help their child develop a taste preference for foods that nourish the body and the brain as they progress into adolescence and adulthood.
According to Boughter, research suggests that the brain can be trained to favor the good over the bad, and outcomes depend heavily on practice and perspective.
In her presentation on branding and the brain, Dr. Amanda S. Bruce, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, further outlined this concept and the huge roles that food marketing and advertising play in dietary patterns.
“Ten billion dollars is spent per year in the United States by companies to market their products to children,” Bruce said.
“Why? Because building brand recognition and loyalty is key, and companies know the importance of starting early.”
Limiting screen media (TVs, computers, smart phones, tablets) access is another way to help children develop healthy eating habits.
According to Bruce, 98 percent of television food advertisements that kids see are for unhealthy foods. She also noted that half of three-month-old infants in the United States watch television regularly, and 90 percent of children tune in regularly by the age of two. On average, obese children eat more branded foods.
What these statistics reveal about the relationship between food marketing, early brain development and obesity is the power that mass media has to not only alter our outlook and perception, but also our reality.
Bruce’s latest pioneering research used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology to map how children’s brains react to fast food logos and it yielded troubling findings.
“You can wrap carrot sticks in McDonald’s paper and kids will believe they taste better,” Bruce said jokingly.
“Some kids recognize the golden arches before the ABCs.”
Bruce, of course, realizes, as do a majority of adults, that childhood obesity and its consequences are no laughing matter.
Research shows that children who are obese are more likely to endure bullying, discrimination, low self-esteem, anxiety and depression. Individually or combined, these consequences can negatively affect academic performance and social adjustment, and also lead to serious behavioral and health challenges in adulthood.
In today’s microwave/instant-gratification society, it’s easy to understand how and why food preference and selection is largely determined by options that are readily available, top-of mind, and easy to prepare.
Although challenging yourself and your loved ones to shift focus from what’s good and fast to what’s good for you may prove to be more difficult, the effort will produce more favorable outcomes for both children and adults, and for our entire community.
(The New Tri-State Defender has partnered with The Urban Child Institute to make sure every child has the best chance for optimal brain development during the critical first three years of each child’s life. This is one in a series of stories and columns in our campaign.)