"These findings are important because they suggest that we may have another tool in our toolbox to combat childhood obesity," said lead researcher Jennifer Silvers from Columbia University in the US.

Most interventions aimed at preventing or reducing childhood obesity focus on changing the environment - by limiting access to soda, for example, or by encouraging physical activity. "Such environmental interventions are clearly important, but sugary sweets and tempting treats cannot always be avoided," Silvers explained.

"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," she noted. The study involved 105 healthy individuals who ranged in age from six to 23 years. They were shown pictures of a variety of unhealthy but appetising salty and sweet snacks while undergoing fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans. The strategy, that re-directs attention, allowed the researchers to assess how participants regulated their responses to the food.

The study results revealed that participants of all ages reported less craving when they used the cognitive strategy of imagining the visual aspect of the food, amounting to a 16 percent reduction in craving. Even when using the strategy, however, children's food cravings were still stronger than those of adolescents and adults, suggesting that foods are generally more desirable to children.

The study appeared in the journal Psychological Science.


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