Diesel exhaust may be wiring kids’ brains for junk food cravings, according to a new study from the University of Southern California.
The research found that children who grow up in high-traffic areas are more likely to consume unhealthy foods later in life, regardless of their poverty level or proximity to fast food restaurants.
Lead author Zhanghua Chen said obesity may be joining the long list of established health effects from traffic pollution. Some are fairly obvious, such as respiratory problems caused by tiny particles in the lungs, or cancer from toxic fumes. But Chen said other impacts, including weight gain and diabetes, are less understood.
“We want to understand what could be the potential mechanism, or the link between these air pollution exposures and the metabolic diseases outcome,” she said.
Chen’s team found that kids who were raised in sooty areas were 34 percent more likely to eat junk food later in life than their peers. Their work suggests the polluted air could be altering the structures in kids’ brains that control dietary decision-making.
That’s based on an earlier study showing mice who were exposed to diesel exhaust in-utero ate more than mice those whose moms lived in filtered air. Brain scans on the mice who were overeating showed structural changes and inflammation in parts of the brain associated with food-seeking and dietary decision-making. More studies exploring this link are underway.
For the latest study, researchers drew on an existing data set called the USC Children’s Health Study, which tracked more than 3,000 Southern California kids from elementary to high school during the 1990s. The kids were asked yearly how often they consumed unhealthy foods.
They then lined up the subjects’ addresses with existing data about pollution levels from nitrogen dioxide, which comes from traffic and power plant emissions, and found that the children who grew up in bad air were eating fatty foods more often as teens. That was after filtering out other factors including household income, parents’ education level or proximity to fast food restaurants.
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