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The Relationship Between Obesity and Ear Infections

Both adults and kids are certainly at risk of obesity. Check out these stats:

  • 33% of U.S. adults are obese. That's one out of three.
  • From 1960 through 2004, obesity increased from 44.8% to 66% of adults.
  • 17.5% of kids (age 6-11) are overweight.
  • Only one in four kids engages in light to moderate physical activity.
  • 25% of kids don't exercise at all!

The common dangers associated with obesity are well known - especially childhood-onset obesity. The risks range from diabetes to pre-mature death - all associated with overeating and weight gain.

Now, new studies present a new risk factor for putting adults and children at risk for becoming obese.

Earaches and Fatty Foods

Researchers recently presented their findings at the 116th Annual American Psychology Association convention. Scientists reported findings of a link between ear infections and the consumption of fatty foods. The more ear infections, the more likely one would be to consume fatty foods.

"Middle ear infection is a common childhood disease and obesity is a growing problem worldwide," said Dr. Linda Bartoshuk, PhD, at the University of Florida, College of Dentistry. "Any potential association between these two public health issues is of considerable interest." Bartoshuk presented some preliminary findings establishing a strong link between localized taste nerve damage from chronic middle ear infections, and an increased preference for high-fat foods.

Is It a Matter of Taste?

Another researcher, Dr. John Hayes, developed a study in conjunction with the University of Connecticut that strongly suggests that a sweet tooth is often connected to ear infections. In many cases, test subjects had lost some ability to taste foods. To compensate, these individuals turned to foods that were higher in fats and sugars.

Among middle-aged women, those with taste functioning consistent with taste nerve damage, preferred sweet and high fat foods more, and were more likely to have larger waists. In another study, they found preschoolers with a severe history of ear infections ate fewer vegetables and more sweets, and tended to be heavier. "This suggests that taste damage from ear infections may alter food choice and thus obesity risk." said Hayes.

A Spreading Problem?

Three out of four children have some kind of ear infection during their early years. At a conference held by the American Chemical Society in August, 2008, Dr. Bartoshuk reported to attendees "frequent ear infections may permanently damage the chorda tympani nerve, which picks up taste sensations from the front of the tongue and then runs through the middle ear - the hollow located between the eardrum and the cochlea - to the brain."

Dr. Bartoshuk reports ear infections may actually increase the pleasure derived from food, making it more tempting to eat fatty, sugary foods. However, this sensation may also "fool the brain" into thinking that it requires more food for energy. The hunger switch doesn't get thrown and, so, children eat more because they derive greater pleasure from the fattening foods they eat and their brains don't tell them to stop eating.

Dr. Bartoshuk and her research colleagues have simply opened the door on the relationship between ear infections in children and the potential for childhood obesity - even in infants. More study is required, there's no doubt.

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