Can we wire children’s brains to not crave junk food?

A study published in Psychological Science says it is possible to train children’s brains to resist craving junk food.

The cognitive strategy was developed by researchers at Columbia University, who took MRI brain scans of 105 children, adolescents and young adults while they looked at images of “unhealthy but appetizing” food. The participants rated each picture by how much it made them want to eat it. When asked to visualize the food far away, as well as focus on the shape and color (versus imagining the food up close, in addition to its taste and smell), researchers saw a 16 percent drop in response, i.e., cravings.

The study also revealed that even when using the strategy, kids’ food cravings have a higher baseline than adults, meaning they are much more powerful. Analyses of the MRI scans found this is potentially linked to a less developed prefrontal cortex — an area of the brain that regulates self control.

“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.

Developmental changes in food craving and self disciplinary regulation are poorly understood, yet one third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese. The cognitive strategy for self discipline was more effective on children with a lower body mass index (BMI).

Currently, most interventions aimed at tackling childhood obesity focus on changing the environment (limiting junk food access) or on encouraging physical activity. Silvers sees promise in the new method, explaining, “If children as young as six can learn to use a cognitive strategy after just a few minutes of training, that has huge implications for interventions.”

The Columbia University team is planning to retest the participants’ psychological relationship with food over time.