Memphis is the most obese city in the nation, according to a recent Gallup Well-Being Index. And for some overweight Memphians, it's a problem that begins in early childhood.
On March 21st, the Urban Child Institute held its eighth annual Brain Awareness Night focused on the brain and childhood obesity and development. A public forum titled "Train Your Brain: How Early Eating Habits Affect Brain Development and Childhood Obesity" featured two presenters and drew more than 100 attendees.
One of the speakers was Dr. John D. Boughter Jr., an associate professor in the University of Tennessee Health Science Center's Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology. Boughter delivered a slideshow presentation that centered on how one's sense of taste engages parts of the brain involved in eating and reward and how dysfunction in these vital systems may occur.
Boughter talked to the Flyer about the brain's reward system and what can be done to curb childhood obesity.
Flyer: Can you explain the basis behind your presentation?
Boughter: I [talked] about the taste system in general, how it's organized, and how certain foods activate your sense of taste and how that leads to activation of specific parts of your brain that have to do with reward and drug addiction and eating.
During your presentation, you touched on the many foods that have some form of sweetness. How does sweet taste activate the brain's reward system?
Sweet taste is rewarding. It represents a good food source for humans. The funny thing about that is that sweet taste is relatively rare in nature. What foods truly taste sweet in nature? You're talking about ripe fruits, honey, but, beyond that, you can't think of too many. These are things that activate reward systems in the brain. The way we're setup is to seek these things out.
How does taste dysfunction occur within the brain's reward system?
We're talking about early childhood development, so the idea is that children actually have an affinity for sweet-tasting things. If you give a baby two types of baby food, they'll always pick the one that's sweet-tasting. When we over-encourage this kind of behavior during development, we lead to long-lasting dietary habits that are not good for us. So that's what we talk about when we mention taste dysfunction.
What can we do about the growing childhood obesity problem here?
Something has to be done, because it's a billion-dollar health problem in this country right now. It's associated with diabetes, hypertension, and all sorts of problems down the road. It's something that we definitely have to combat aggressively. Paying attention to diet is extremely important, as well as exercise. I think the main thrust of it is to establish healthy eating patterns from the get-go.
How can people train their taste systems to desire better foods?
People need to understand that a lot of the foods we eat have been designed by the food industry to overwhelm your taste system and activate it. You have to be on guard [and] think about the things you eat and taste, especially understanding the natural basis of your taste system and how it works. It's about making dietary changes.