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Obesity in children: researching the body’s natural weight-control system

06 September 2011 Action Medical Research

A shocking 17 per cent of boys and 15 per cent of girls aged two to 15 years are obese in the UK1, putting them at risk of serious, long-term health problems. Now a team of Aberdeen researchers are investigating special diets which could help youngsters keep the weight off, thanks to a grant from children’s charity Action Medical Research.

Obesity is not just a problem with eating too much, it is also a problem with the body accurately monitoring and controlling weight. Evidence suggests that a control circuit in the brain, which is responsible for natural weight control, is faulty in obesity. The researchers are investigating whether special diets might correct this fault and help children maintain a healthy weight.

Obesity puts children at risk of health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and some cancers. Obese children tend to grow into overweight adults, when ongoing weight problems can restrict activity, damage health and shorten life expectancy. 2,3 

Obese children are more likely to suffer bullying, discrimination, low self-esteem and poor body image. This sort of psychological stress can hinder children’s progress at school, damage their friendships and even cause depression.

Lead researcher, Professor John Speakman, from the University of Aberdeen, said: “We need body fat, but it causes health problems if levels get too high or too low. A control circuit of nerve cells in the brain – called the energy balance circuit –plays a key role in controlling our weight.

“If we become overweight, the circuit detects our excess body fat and sends out signals encouraging us to eat less food and use more energy, so that we lose weight. Most children are born with a healthy circuit, but it can become faulty if their lifestyle is unhealthy. Evidence suggests the circuit is faulty in people who are obese,” he said.

The researchers, who are studying obesity in a laboratory model, have already discovered that the cells of the energy balance circuit are continually regenerated. It seems that a eating a high-fat diet blocks this process, causing a faulty circuit.

The researchers now want to use their laboratory model to study several different types of diet, to see whether any particular nutrients can help repair a faulty energy balance circuit. The diets contain different proportions of key nutrients, such as protein, fat and carbohydrate. Evidence suggests long-term dieting can regenerate the circuit and repair the faults

Professor Speakman, is an expert in obesity and ageing, and a world-leading researcher on nutrition and energy balance in animals and humans. His colleague, Dr David McNay, is a leading researcher in the energy balance circuit and its nerve cells.

Dr Alexandra Dedman, Senior Research Evaluation Manager, with Action Medical Research, said: “The researchers hope to use a well established laboratory model of obesity to study whether certain diets might help fix a child’s faulty energy balance circuit.

“In theory, the right nutrition could help the child’s energy balance circuit to work in harmony with their diet and exercise plan to lose weight. This could mean children no longer get stuck in an endless cycle of dieting and rebound weight gain. Instead, they might lose weight and keep it off for good.

“Helping children to keep to a healthy weight could decrease their risk of developing serious, long-term health problems and free them from the stigma that often comes with growing up with obesity,” she added.

Getting plenty of exercise and eating a balanced diet is the best way to control weight. If a child does become obese, then carefully controlled dieting and special exercise plans can be necessary. Unfortunately, though, rebound weight gain after dieting is common. We urgently need a longer term solution, which helps obese children lose weight and keep it off for good.

References 

  1.The NHS Information Centre, Lifestyles Statistics. Statistics on obesity, physical activity and diet: England, 2010. 10 February 2010.http://www.ic.nhs.uk/pubs/opad10 Accessed 3 January 2011.
  2.NHS Choices. Your health, your choices. Obesity – information prescription. Last reviewed: 25/02/2010.http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Obesity/Pages/Introduction.aspx Date accessed: 3 January 2011.
  3. World Health Organization. Nutrition. Facts and Figures.http://www.euro.who.int/en/what-we-do/health-topics/disease-prevention/n... Accessed 3 January 2011.

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