Teens with Obesity May Have Brain Damage That Produces Poor Eating Habits

December 16, 2019

A young teen is doing exercise
Heather Parker

Teenage obesity has become an epidemic in the United States in recent years. Many factors can affect what makes a child obese, such as eating habits, sedentary lifestyles, health issues, medications, or genetics. 

The Rise of Teen Obesity

The Centers for Disease Control states that 20% of teens aged 12-19 are now obese, a rate that has tripled since the 1970s.

However, researchers are now finding a different reason why children and teens may be overweight.

Obese teens may have brain damage

A new study has recently found that obese teens show signs of brain damage on MRI scans.

Obesity causes not only weight gain, but widespread inflammation throughout the body that affects the nervous system which could lead to brain damage. This brain damage affects important regions in the brain responsible for emotions, cognitive function, and control of appetite.

While the study is small and not yet peer reviewed, researchers believe this new information will now lead doctors in new directions for solving this epidemic, as well as better understanding the patterns of behavior in obese children. Eating can be a coping mechanism for some teens, leading to behavioral issues that drive out-of-control appetites.

The Data

The study compared the brains of 59 obese adolescents with 61 healthy adolescents. The damage to the brain included inflammatory markers associated with leptin, a hormone created by fat cells that help regulate energy levels and fat stores.

When the brain is functioning properly, fat cells create leptin to help us feel full and eat less. It was found that some obese teens do not respond to this hormone because of the brain changes associated with obesity, so these children keep overeating despite having abundant fat stores.

Doctors face new challenges

The rise in childhood obesity is now posing new challenges for pediatricians. Doctors are now seeing teens with type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure, which was almost unheard of forty years ago. Pediatricians are not accustomed to prescribing drugs for type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure in teens, and the effects of these medications on children haven’t been studied extensively yet. This could, in time, lead to even more complications for teens who struggle with their weight.

Treat obesity early

Doctors and researchers agree it is of the utmost importance to deal with obesity as soon as it is detected in children and teens, as it has lasting physical and mental effects well into adulthood.

For most teens, their weight affects their self-esteem and can lead to anxiety or depression.

Childhood obesity can also cause breast enlargement for both genders, irregular periods, acne, joint and heart problems, sleep apnea, breathing issues, diabetes, and liver damage.

Solutions for teen obesity

There are ways to help adolescents reverse diabetes in ways that are healthy both physically and mentally. Parents and caregivers can help model these behaviors at home for healthier children.

 

  1. Build healthy eating habits. According to physicians, weight loss is 90% what you eat. Adolescents should make sure their plate is made up of 50% fruits and vegetables, 25% protein, and 25% carbohydrates. Teens should also limit sugary drinks and stay hydrated with water.
  2. Eat as a family. Children who eat dinner with their families are 40% less likely to be obese, especially when paired with proper sleep and limited screen time.
  3. Limit screen time. Adolescents now spend over seven hours per day engaging in sedentary activities like watching TV, playing video games, or texting friends on their phones. Besides causing obesity, too much screen time causes sleep deprivation, vision problems, aches and pains (tech neck), loss of social skills, and aggression. Experts recommend limiting screen time to one to two hours per day maximum.  
  4. Exercise. The CDC recommends children and adolescents get an hour of activity per day. To help your child add activity to their day, here are a few ideas:
    1. Play with your kids at home with games like tag, hide and seek, soccer, or football to get the whole family involved.
    2. Go for family walks before or after dinner.
    3. Encourage movement with exercise equipment at home, such as a treadmill, elliptical, exercise balls, yoga mats, weights, or exercise bikes. Desk bikes, like this one from Flexispot, encourage teens to exercise while working or studying to increase movement in fun and simple ways at home.

 

While childhood and adolescent obesity remain a crisis in the U.S., new research and developments in the treatment of childhood obesity may help may a big difference. Encouraging healthy behaviors at home with healthy eating, exercise, and reduced screen time is also beneficial for young adults.

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